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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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JUNE 2021 Issue
ArtSeen

Agnes Martin: The Distillation of Color

Agnes Martin, <em>Desert Flower</em>, 1985. Acrylic and pencil on linen, 72 1/8 x 72 1/8 inches. © Estate of Agnes Martin /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Agnes Martin, Desert Flower, 1985. Acrylic and pencil on linen, 72 1/8 x 72 1/8 inches. © Estate of Agnes Martin /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
On View
Pace Gallery
May 5 – June 26, 2021
New York

Agnes Martin desired that her paintings, when exhibited, should be presented together in a small group for quiet contemplation. Her long-standing gallerist Arne Glimcher made sure, from her emergence as an artist of significance in the 1970s to this current exhibition, that where possible it would be the case. Never a minimalist, Martin identified herself with Abstract Expressionism; like other artists in this category, she was singular, as different from them as they were from each other, except in determination and the will for transcendence. Examining Martin’s particular use of and ever-evolving relationship to color, the exhibition features a selection of 12 six by six foot paintings—Martin’s consistently chosen size—from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The selection ranges from Martin’s early use of multicolored stripes to compositions comprising color-washed bands with hand-drawn lines, to the deep gray “Black Paintings” made in the late 1980s. It is an opportunity to observe, or rather, to experience with concentrated prolonged looking, the extraordinary shifts of emphasis in subtle and non-programmatic use of color during Martin’s transition from one phase to another; to witness Martin’s expanding vision during the latter half of her career.

Installation view: <em>Agnes Martin: The Distillation of Color</em>, Pace Gallery, New York, 2021. Courtesy Pace Gallery.
Installation view: Agnes Martin: The Distillation of Color, Pace Gallery, New York, 2021. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

In 1972, Martin returned to making paintings after a five-year break. She had left New York in 1967 for New Mexico where, in a self-imposed exile, a transformation took place, the trajectory of which is followed in this exhibition: the grid loosened and varied, and color changed—in a process of distillation—over subsequent years, from pink, yellow, and blue to grays and white. She remarked later, “Sometimes nature calls you and says, ‘come live with me.’ So I decided to experiment with the simple life.” When she returned to painting after settling in Galisteo, New Mexico, she began to paint gessoed linen with careful washes of pale primary color, at first in vertical bands, later reoriented to horizontal bands. It was often part of Martin’s approach to paint even horizontal paintings vertically to avoid color dripping or flowing out of the band that she was working on. It is interesting to imagine—with this practicality in mind—the moment that Martin decided to settle on horizontal rather than vertical compositions. By this time, Martin’s declared themes of beauty, happiness, and innocence were inseparable from her immersion in the expansive landscape of New Mexico.

Untitled #8 (1974) comprises alternate bands of sand pink and haze blue, as delicate and nuanced as watercolor, with boundary lines of graphite that register but do not overly contain or inhibit the bands. The pale colors and graphite lines are neither hesitant nor assertive: the painting is both calm and very present, an invitation to engage meditatively. Desert Flower (1985), with narrower bands of alternate values of the same base color, possesses a different rhythm. Like a vibration, or passage of light, and as with the other paintings here, it is not easy to apply a description other than an allusion to music. By 
Untitled #1 (1989), the colors had changed to cool gray and white: just as with Martin’s previous colors, they are impossible to pin down exactly, even though they are so precise and sure. The bands are deliberately narrower at the upper and lower edges of the painting; the variation of what was previously a continuous passage is now an implied fragment or an interrupted, partial sequence. The effect is to feel the painting is presenting a sense of finitude or limit.

Installation view: <em>Agnes Martin: The Distillation of Color</em>, Pace Gallery, New York, 2021. Courtesy Pace Gallery.
Installation view: Agnes Martin: The Distillation of Color, Pace Gallery, New York, 2021. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Untitled #2 (1989) is a dark, resonant painting. The narrower gray bands are like incisions, the beauty of the light is lowered tonally, and the contemplative nature of the space appears mindful of a transition for the painter, one that will remain after the artist’s life for viewers to come—ensuing mortality undoubtedly meant something for this formidably intelligent, reflective mind that was sensitive and awake. Though the paintings are steely or storm-cloud gray, Martin referred to them as her “Black Paintings.” It wasn’t the end of her story: more exuberant paintings were to come, and in any case, there is never any morbidity, only varying degrees of gravity consonant with life in all its joy and acceptance, presented as a variable meta-pitch of visual sound and surface—far from metaphor and representation.

Contributor

David Rhodes

David Rhodes is a New York-based artist and writer, originally from Manchester, UK. He has published reviews in the Brooklyn Rail, Artforum, and artcritical, among other publications.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

All Issues