Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Entwined: The Life and Art of Agnes Martin

Happy Holiday by Agnes Martin, 1999, oil and graphite on canvas, five feet square (Tate Gallery)

“I paint with my back to the world.” – Agnes Martin, interviewed by Mary Lance, 2003.

Agnes Martin, the hermetic artist and creator of hermetic paintings that invite us to enter their quiet domain without any preconceptions or conscious thoughts, was such an international figure in the visual cultural arena and so prominent a reclusive presence in her hermitage studio in the Southwest of America, that people are often surprised to learn that she’s in fact a Canadian, born in Saskatchewan in 1912. But once you register her point of origin, and also remember what the flat and spacious physical geography of Saskatchewan looks like, then the austere and serene paintings she sends us, which I maintain are actually pure landscapes devoid of topographical features, then her entire oeuvre, which dramatically anticipated minimalism yet continued the evolution of abstract expression at the same time, suddenly makes shocking sense. As does her somewhat outside-the-mainstream art-world status, earned by her hard-fought battles with psychological crisis, isolation and her seemingly monkish devotion to a solitary existence in New Mexico, one that makes Georgia O’Keeffe come across like a party girl by comparison.

Although Martin identified with and was aligned with the Abstract Expressionist movement of her coming of artistic age in the late 40’s and mid-50’s, her near-compulsive commitment to tightly controlled geometry caused her to often mistakenly be connected to Minimalist aesthetics. This is a misperception, since she was defiantly abstract and also paradoxically a landscape painter in a novel postmodern sense all her own. She was central to – though also abiding peripherally to, almost as a permanent outsider artist –some of the most experimental and incendiary stylistic developments in the mid-20th century. She maintained what we can most courteously describe as a “legendary reserve”: a benevolent characterization preferable to that of her actual condition, depression rooted in early-onset schizophrenia. When she died at ninety-two in 2004, in Taos, New Mexico, it is said she had not read a newspaper in half a century.

Although no substantial critical monograph has chronicled this most acclaimed of unknown artists (the recipient of two career retrospectives as well as the National Medal of the Arts) who has been extolled as a modernist goddess by many of the century’s top critics and curators, she is worshipped by her fellow artists as an enigmatic emblem of pure painting. A new effort by Nancy Princenthal to encapsulate the almost indistinguishable line between her life and her art goes a long way to mapping her extraordinary, if solitary, achievement. It is indeed highly recommended reading for anyone either interested in or curious about abstract art, in addition to the history of innovative feminist artists in America and beyond. Martin is not only an artistic category all by herself but also an entire territory of struggle, triumph, suffering and solace, one that is truly gargantuan in scope, yet also is reflective in its spiritually devoted tone.

Martin with ladder and level, 1960. (J Paul Getty Trust)

If you’ve sauntered through almost any museum in the world in the last half- century, you’ve most likely come upon a silently smoldering pale chalky lined painting by Agnes Martin. Chances are you may have practically walked right past it, so subtle and unassuming (at first) did it appear to your unsuspecting retinas. This is especially the case since surveys have sadly indicated that the average visitors to public galleries and museums, especially those intrepid culture tourists, actually spend an average of seven minutes in front of each art work before moving on in their restless search for masterpieces. The fact is, a Martin masterpiece requires upwards of between seventeen and seventy minutes in order to quiet your eyes and brain long enough to fully recognize exactly what she’s accomplishing. I know some painters and critics, in fact, who have returned again and again to a Martin canvas during the course of one visit, until a full seven hours have elapsed, after which they emerge with a look of rapture and transformation on their faces.

Were they optical fetishists? Perhaps. But they also took the time and energy to descend into the full depths, and to ascend up to the sheer dizzying heights, of what Martin managed to do with the most (seemingly) severely restricted palettes, tones, shapes and forms. It’s almost understandable for the untutored eye, or at least for someone who hasn’t consumed much of art history’s radical and accelerated evolution during their busy lives, to not detect anything at all being depicted in her luscious but whispery canvases. Almost. But it’s also so easy these days to simply google, and file under what-the-hell gestures, if you like, just how she became so important to the world of painters, dealers, critics and curators. There’s really no excuse for the so-called average person to claim that this isn’t art, or their kid could do it, etc. You may not grasp its content at first, or why she’s so important, but you do have to give the lady her due and make even the lamest attempt to find out why she did it.

A prime example of the challenges and the dilemmas but also the rewards of slowing down our hyperactive brains and eyes long enough to gaze into her cool, calm visas (which I will again comfortably claim are not only not minimalist art but classical Abstract Expressionism taken to its outer limits, a borderline, in fact, which for me places them firmly in the finest landscape painting tradition of Turner and Constable) would be a work she executed in 1980 called Untitled #7. Henry Martin (no relation) wondered deeply about her work when he wrote a profile piece on her in 2018 for The Irish Times in which he tried valiantly to position her more accurately in the public imagination. He first used the common motif of money, something everyone presumably understands, to sincerely extol her virtues as the “troubled painter who found peace in grid-like works inspired by children playing hopscotch and whose now $10 million dollar painting caused a row when a Dublin Gallery owned by Hugh Lane bought the classic Martin back then for a paltry $23K.”

At all points during this appreciation it would be useful for the reader to again remember that this is a Canadian-born painter who grew up in Saskatchewan, with its flat fields and rows of grain, who then came of age, afterward rejected the hubbub of the competitive New York art realms, sequestered in her secluded Southwest American domain of flat, pale, sandy deserts and stones. This might even help us to situate her as the kind of exemplary landscape artist I think she secretly is. The reserved Untitled #7, created when the artist was 68 and at the peak of her invisible but towering acclaim, set off an alarming outcry from Irish media and gallery patrons when it was purchased at the behest of a brave (and, needless to say, visionary) curator, one Ethna Waldron, and prompted one acquisition committee member to exclaim, quite without doing a shred of actual research, of course, “I don’t see any artistic merit,” Ned Bennett blundered. “I reflect, I hope, the view of the man on the street.” Yes, he was in fact slightly echoing that proverbial populist street, but why in heaven’s name was he on a selection committee for a major museum if that was his final and useless orientation?

What shocked Bennett, who knew next to nothing about Martin, modern art, or her role as an international aesthetic icon, so egregiously was the crass fact that the painting would consume $23K of the gallery’s paltry $30K budget. For me the most surprising thing was not the exquisite work itself, but that a culture such as Ireland, which had produced some of the most radical literature in history in the form of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, would fail to see exactly the same ethos being expressed visually in Martin’s painting, and indeed in her whole life’s oeuvre. Equally inexplicable was the fact that it was a stalwart politician, one Mary Flaherty, who boldly exclaimed, “I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like this before in Dublin. For me, there quite a lot in it.” There is indeed, but you have to go inside it and look for what’s there, it’s not going to come and conk you over the head. It will, however, touch your heart, if you let it.

Untitled #7, oil and graphite on canvas, 1980. (Tate Gallery)

And even Henry Martin eventually opined, “Neither Bennett or Flaherty could ever have foreseen that one day the pyjama painting (so-called because of its pale stripes) would be worth $10 million and its painter would be regarded as an icon of 20th-century art. Her paintings, often called grid or band paintings, bridge two important art movements, abstraction and minimalism, though they also have what the critic Dore Ashton calls heir own distinct climate.” Indeed, I would again locate them somewhere in the same dramatically expressive domains as late Degas and experimental Whistler, even late Goya, with almost all atmospheric form and less programmatic content. “Though it is large,” Henry Martin observed, six feet tall and wide—it has no subject, barely any colours, and even it’s name, Untitled #7, suggests no clear identity, purpose or meaning.”

Now, of course, poor Hugh was wrong on every single count. It has a subject; he just didn’t take the time (longer than seven minutes) to contemplate what it might be, since seeing per se is precisely what it is about: pure vision in the absence of thought patterns. Its colours are not only not barely there, but by the seventeenth minute of observing it, they practically scream out as us with their albeit muted, graduated and subdued subtlety: they are the external colours of the artist’s beloved deserts and internal skies. As to its title, that is the easiest of all to grasp, if, that is, one begins to reflect on the existential and absurdist dramas embodied by modernist writers and poets such as Joyce, Beckett, Kafka and Ionesco. The message is clear: in the last century our myths crumbled, and with them vanished all of our shared consensus about identity, purpose and meaning in life. If Agnes Martin’s pictures were sculptures, they could easily be Giacometti figures or de Stijl furniture, which emphatically declare, as did Frank Stella’s ground-breaking post-Abstract and pre-Minimalist images: what you see is what you see.

What they are is what Agnes shows us we are, if we can cope with her level of often harrowing clarity, and that is: slightly melancholy beings each isolated in its own private perceptual chamber tapping on the walls in the hopes of communicating with other inmates. And few of her works encapsulate this powerful ethos quite as beautifully as Happy Holiday, from 1999, made just as the century whose basic character she embodied so forcefully was drawing to a close, leaving her only four more years of seeing and painting. When it was exhibited at the Pace Wildenstein Gallery in 2000, the stir it caused was of quite another sort, since by then she had assumed an almost legendary status among painters, critics, curators, collectors and even a large portion of the public itself. In fact, Stephanie Straine freely and emotionally expressed when she later wrote about Martin for a huge Tate Gallery show that it quite rightly felt like more of a sacred anointment than an exhibition.

Untitled #5 (1988). (Boston Museum)
Untitled #2 (1992). (Artists Rights Society, NY)

Given how soft a voice her paintings speak in, it may come as no surprise that no matter how expensive the museum catalogue, poster or book that tries to depict them for us to savour, they are often rendered practically mute. This is because all of the actual textural drama, and it is considerable, produced by her tiny roughhewn lines and graphite edges, seem to flatten out and disappear when presented in printed form. It’s only by being in what we call their haptic presence physically, where your eyes can feel the touch of her serrated surfaces on the retina as they reveal the painstaking (one might almost say obsessive compulsive) labour involved in their fabrication, and it suddenly dawns on you.  They are clearly meditational vehicles for her, in addition to being emotional and spiritual techniques for keeping at bay the well-known personal demons embodied in the depression that demands solitude and seclusion in order to be effectively managed.

And Straine, by knowingly focusing her and our attention only on what could be seen, not imagined, even managed to convey the almost mystical nature of Martin’s magic without ever really resorting to emotionally programmatic curatorial codes or aesthetic hyperbole. Her astute approach is so accurate, like Agnes herself, that it verges on sheer poetry: “Happy Holiday is a five-foot square abstract painting on canvas by the Canadian–American artist Agnes Martin, signed and inscribed by the artist on its verso. The square pictorial field is divided into fourteen horizontal bands of equal width, alternating in colour between white and peach, with pale blue used for the top one and bottom two bands. This pattern of stripes is demarcated by wavering graphite pencil lines. As with all works from this period by Martin, Happy Holiday was begun by priming the entire surface of the canvas with an opaque coating of white acrylic gesso, which is never fully covered by subsequent layers of colour. This gives the painting an all-over visual sparseness and vibrant luminosity, the thick white gesso sealing and emphasizing the slightly toothy texture of the linen canvas support. On top of this base coat of paint the artist measured out and marked with pencil and a short ruler the horizontal lines that span the width of the canvas. This shuddering, incremental approach to delineation emphasizes the centrality of drawing to Martin’s painting. The type of line produced by the artist is not uniformly straight; despite her use of a ruler it exhibits an undeniably hand-drawn quality, tracing the bumps of the canvas surface. It is striking that Martin does not draw a distinction between drawing and painting. On the contrary, she collapses it. The distinction instead is in her use of scale. Certainly, the intimacy of the quavering pencil lines contrasts purposefully with the imposing size of the canvas.

Happy Holiday was completed by the duck-egg blue and pale peach colours painted into nine of the bands using a different type of acrylic, Liquitex, which gives a translucent and light-reflecting finish. The coloured paint strays beyond the demarcation of the pencil lines, giving the work a gestural and hand-made feel when viewed at close range that subverts the geometric rigidity of the composition. Of the fourteen bands, only the top one and bottom two are filled with the light blue paint, while the other bands alternate between the peachy wash and the white gesso which originally primed the canvas surface. The bands of colour don’t quite reach the edges of the canvas: the small gaps create the impression that the blue and peach washes are floating against the field of bright, solid white. Geometry is an abstract system of order concerned with the relation between shapes. It is also an ideal. It refers to a perfection of form that does not actually exist within the natural world. In contrast, the rectangles Martin describes within the square format of her canvases are irregular and imperfect.

I believe Straine’s observations for the Tate Gallery retrospective are well worth quoting at length because they bring us face to face with the grandeur of Martin’s simplicity, a degree of perfect imperfection which is also stressed and celebrated in Nancy Princenthal’s exemplary new biography of the person herself and assessment of the works created by this singular spirit. That spirit is what many of us detect, upon close scrutiny, staring back at us from her magnificent canvases. It’s an aspect that Straine further associated – quite rightly, I think, considering Martin’s well known melancholy – with an exuberant, an almost ecstatic tone that reveals her embrace of sheer goodness, pervasive well-being and a joyous sense of the sublime.

In an interview with the art critic Irving Sandler in 1993, the artist made specific reference to this aspect of her painting: “I think that personal feelings, sentimentality and those sorts of emotions, are not art but that universal emotions like happiness are art. I am particularly interested in the abstract emotions that we feel when we listen to music.”  Her gentle works do indeed bring us to a temporary state of blissful awareness, not unlike that which we experience when listening to our favorite musical compositions. Once museums are back up and running again in more normal times, hopefully soon, I do hope you’ll go to the one near you and listen carefully to the paintings of Agnes Martin. 

Martin at her studio in New Mexico, contemplating a painting, later in life. (Portrait by Dan Budnik)

Guggenheim Museum Martin installation, New York 2017. (David Heald)

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.



No comments:

Post a Comment