Agnes Martin: Night Sea
(Afterall Books, 2017)
Despite her prominence within the contemporary art canon, Agnes Martin nonetheless remains something of an “artist’s artist,” her work revered more by critics and practitioners than those uninitiated to modern art, to whom her spare abstractions can come off as inscrutable. In Agnes Martin: Night Sea, art historian and critic Suzanne Hudson offers a powerful point of entry for this casual viewer, using as its starting point the 1963 painting of the book’s title, which Hudson identifies as both an exemplary and exceptional work within the artist’s oeuvre, “a shimmering realization of control and loss that the artist would never repeat.” But this volume is no less essential to the aficionado than it is to the art world initiate laying bare why, more than a decade since her passing, Martin remains a vital figure.
Part of Afterall Books’s One Work series, the book opens with a rigorous description of Night Sea as a “wildly mutable thing”—a 6×6 foot canvas coated with lapis-like blue oil paint, scored and gilded with a geometric grid of non-uniform gold rectangles, and then an opaque blue-green daub applied to each small section. Martin made Night Sea midway through the seven-year period of her classic grid paintings, which ended in 1967 when she left New York and for several years stopped making art altogether. As Hudson sees it, the painting stands alone within this larger suite as the last of Martin’s “process-based works,” made in a transitional and trying year. By 1963, Martin had landed on the square format for her paintings, but after Night Sea she did away with the unpainted border, and moved definitively from oil paint to acrylic. Additionally, this is the only painting at this scale within her body of work in this particular ultramarine blue. The idiosyncratic color and inclusion of gold, as well as the possible significance of the title, are teased out quite beautifully in the third and final chapter of the book. But what fascinates Hudson most about Night Sea are its “persistently mortal aspects,” characteristics in the work that the artist would in other cases reject, but for some reason here allowed. From 1963 on, and particularly in her work from the 1970s, after she returned to the New Mexican mesas of her young adulthood, Martin worked to become a conduit for inspiration, “to offer a vision of non-attachment.” The planning for her work during this period happened elsewhere, in some mental and spiritual space, not on the canvas. But to Hudson, the “flaws” of Night Sea nonetheless evince the process and the person behind the work.
Martin and her work are often discussed in deific terms, which makes Hudson’s very human portrait of the artist all the more refreshing. Notoriously private, the artist scrupulously managed how she and her work were presented to the public, so her struggles with mental illness, as well as her sexuality, have long been shrouded in speculation. Hudson credits recent scholarship, including Nancy Princenthal’s 2015 biography, with informing her approach to the biographical details, sensitively shedding light on the artist’s life without collapsing notions of psychopathology into the work itself. As Hudson explains, it is unclear when exactly Martin began work on Night Sea. An exacting and unsentimental artist, she destroyed the work that was not, according to her, “the real thing.” She made art for two decades prior to her grid period, but very little of this work survives. It is indeed a wonder that Night Sea survived its author’s scrutiny.
Like so much of Martin’s work, Night Sea pales in reproduction. This makes Hudson’s close study all the more invaluable—it is a highly readable, scholarly interpretation of an extraordinary achievement that might otherwise go overlooked. Hudson invites us to revel with her in the work’s mastery and mystery, its exceptional nature both within Martin’s oeuvre and within modern art history. Night Sea represents a pivotal shift in the career of an artist whose significance resides as much in what she withheld as in what she revealed.