As Agnes Martin neared her eightieth birthday in March 1992, she might have been expected
to further refine her already stringently circumscribed syntax—for refinement and distillation are
processes befitting a great "classical" artist who reaches a venerable age. But Martin was never
one to adhere to conventional models nor to be swayed by the expectations of others; and in
the final decade of her long career, she proved no different.
Two substantial retrospectives marked that anniversary year, one in Europe, the other in North America.1 Concurrently, a collection of her writings appeared in German as well as English; it soon became the primary vehicle through which younger artists (and others) were introduced to her work and thought.2 Not surprisingly, such unusual public exposure interrupted Martin’s normally cloistered studio life, causing a certain falling off in her production. Soon after, when she found herself no longer able to handle easily the six-foot-square stretchers favored over the past three decades, she adopted a five-foot-square chassis.3 However, before she could fully exploit the potential of the new format, she required time to familiarize herself with it; for this small diminution in the visual field of her canvas significantly impacts a viewer’s bodily address to the painting. Toward the end of the decade, Martin entered an especially fertile phase, which only came to an end in 2004 when, at the age of ninety-two, she found she now needed assistance to manipulate the five-foot stretchers. Both of her options—hiring studio help or recourse to even smaller dimensions—smacked of compromise (proof, if proof were needed, of the importance of a bodily based scale to her aesthetic). She therefore decided to quit altogether. Such clear-sighted intransigence was not uncharacteristic; throughout her life Martin pursued her goals with a fierce independence and scrupulous rectitude that at times bordered on ruthlessness. In light of this singular finale, Dia’s fifth installment in its retrospective survey of Martin’s art from the mid-fifties to her death in December 2004, gives particular focus to that exceptional phase beginning in the later nineties and continuing to her last painting, Untitled (2004).
Martin’s reputation was founded in the 1960s on finely differentiated, pale monochrome canvases with delicate graphite grids. Her subsequent works reveal an exceptional degree of formal experimentation within a narrow set of self-imposed constraints. Around 1990 she briefly adopted an austere vocabulary of dense and opaque stripes in muted tones, but she soon reverted to the technique she had long preferred, nuanced washes applied over bright white grounds. For much of the nineties, pale pinks, blues, and lemons were deployed in horizontal bands demarcated with crisp graphite lines. Toward the end of the decade these subtle hues effloresced into apricots, salmons, roses, duck-egg blues, buttercup yellows, glowing oranges, and pale lemons. Constantly experimenting with formats, Martin struck gold in 2001 by once more reorienting her vocabulary: with its vertically aligned structure, Little Children Loving Love is pinioned by a single horizontal line. Often, as seen in the companion piece Little Children Playing with Love (2001), Martin explored a compositional and coloristic relationship across several related paintings. Only rarely, however, did she deem a body of work a series per se. Tellingly, such series were not constructed by predetermined permutations on a serial structure but the converse: as the eight-part Innocent Love (1999) demonstrates, an intuitively derived set of relationships imbue the totality with an elusive sense of coherence and cohesion. In 2002 her work underwent a sea change, as she not only abandoned color but forsook luminous washes for impastoed surfaces of viscous acrylic paint. In several of these anomalous works, discrete geometric forms were superimposed onto a monochrome black field, bearing traces of broad gestural handling. The uplifting affect that had long been Martin’s desideratum— an affect based in feelings of happiness, innocence, exaltation, and joy, as many of her most recent titles intimated—was replaced, through 2003, by more somber, disquieting, even foreboding states—"scary" was the word she chose to describe them. The sense of unease generated by these paintings is doubly determined: Grounded in disjunctive, fractured structures, it is enhanced by the thoroughness with which they repudiate not only her signature manner but her long-standing search for "a quality of repose," a blissful egoless condition conducive to "an untroubled mind."
In a recent lecture on Martin’s work, the young American artist Zoe Leonard quoted a statement Martin published in 1973:
People think that painting is about color It’s mostly composition It’s composition that’s the whole thing4
While greatly admiring her subject, Leonard nonetheless took issue with this claim, arguing: "Color is so powerful in her work, the infusions of pink and orange, salmon and rose. The deep blues and tinted grays. . . . And, in the late work, the washes of pale yellow, pale blue, the luminous tints of orange. The structure of the paintings is rigorous, for sure. . . . But the colors she uses are radiant, luminous, glowing. They are evocative colors, and respond strongly to changing light conditions." Having made this counterproposal, Leonard paused before offering another, more provocative, proposition. "Perhaps even more than the colors she selects," she continued, "the language Martin uses to title her paintings is flagrant, delicious, seductive: The Rose, The Peach, Adventure, Desert Flower, The Beach, Happiness, The Cliff, Night Sea, Red Bird, Milk River. These are words of pleasure," Leonard noted. "Words that describe a deeply physical experience of the world. A physical pleasure and a life of the body."5
The titles Leonard cited in support of her argument are all taken from early works, that is, from works made in the sixties. By 1974 (when she resumed painting after a hiatus of some six years), titles no longer interested Martin. With few exceptions, the paintings of the next two decades were all untitled. She simply assigned each work a number, usually an Arabic numeral, occasionally a Roman one, together with the year it was executed.6 In 1997, however, she gave what was then only her second series a title that remains, even by her standards, exceptional.7 With My Back to the World describes the position she felt she needed to adopt in order to make a "classical" art—an art that in her definition of the term evokes abstract emotions by means of experiences of beauty and perfection that originate in the mind not the eye. "Classicists are people who look out with their backs to the world," she wrote in 1973 in her prose poem "An Untroubled Mind"; "You stand with your back to the turmoil."8 Over the next four years, a wealth of novel titles were bestowed on her canvases. Those that allude to the states or conditions that she hoped her work would evoke parallel others that conjure the sentient beings—babies, infants, children—who might be the purest exponents of such states. Different in kind from the nature-referencing terms she had formerly favored, they are also different in spirit. Replacing a physical groundedness in the pleasures of the world with something far more abstract, they echo in visionary fervor William Blake’s "Songs of Innocence" (1789). In 2002, as Martin’s work veered toward an idiom more rudimentary in form and darker in affect, this practice abruptly stopped, suggesting that she no longer needed—or wanted?—words to characterize what was appearing on her canvases.9
Given their radical divergence from their predecessors, these unsettling works pose many questions. No significant falling off in her powers, mental or physical, caused their tensions and disjunctions: as the limpid poise of the nonpareil Untitled #3 (2003) attests, she retained remarkable formal control and inventiveness until the end of her working life. If not formally unresolved, this fractious group is inimical to her abiding aesthetic ideals. Since, however, several among them reprise formats, motifs, and even palettes found in transitional works from the late fifties, an alternative reading could deem them a selfconscious courting of closure, a rewriting of what had originated as tentative or flawed ventures. Others, notably The Sea (2003), bear a close resemblance to her first mature statements. While this reading transforms aberrations into valedictory gestures, it overlooks her unflinching disavowal of whatever failed to reach her exigent standards: moreover, to the degree that it’s a pathos-ridden interpretation, it’s deeply antithetical to everything she strove for. A different yardstick is therefore required.
With My Back to the World is unique among Martin’s titles, in that it is a programmatic declaration. This stance, at the heart of her aesthetic, was far from easily achieved. It depended not on a straightforward act of renunciation but on the opposite, a hard-won equipoise, a balancing of multiple contraries—of subjectivity and objectivity, drawing and painting, flatness and illusion, near and far, the vast and the minute. For a brief moment in 2002, Martin seems to have reversed her pivotal position: now, "with her back to the wall," she faced head on what she termed "the turmoil"—and recalibrated the precarious equilibrium between irrepressible subjectivity and her ideal of egoless objectivity.10 The paintings Martin made on the heels of this brief volte-face in 2002 are more subdued than serene— in a word, tempered. Divested of the vaporous lightness that had infused her work at its best, they are nevertheless disciplined with her hallmark razor-sharp acumen. By choosing not to expunge all traces of their predecessors’ dark depths, Martin ensured that in form as in affect, they would remain indelibly shadowed, their register no longer solace but something more akin to restitution.
1. "Agnes Martin: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1960–1989," Kunstmuseum Winterthur, January 19—March 15, 1992; "Agnes Martin," Whitney Museum of American Art," November 6, 1992–January 31, 1993, and touring to multiple venues through February 1994.
2. See Agnes Martin: Writings—Schriften, ed. Dieter Schwarz (Winterthur: Kunstmuseum, in association with Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1991).
3. She had worked intermittently on twelve-inch-square paintings alongside the six-foot-square format throughout the same period.
4. Martin, "An Untroubled Mind" (1973), in Agnes Martin: Writings—Schriften, p. 35.
5. Zoe Leonard, lecture in the Artists on Artists lecture series, Dia:Chelsea, New York, December 4, 2006.
6. For example, in 1985 she named a group of works after fruit trees.
7. In 1979, Martin titled her first series The Islands, reusing a title she had employed earlier in her career. A group of seven closely related works from 1993 to 1994, installed in a dedicated gallery at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, was not titled.
8. Martin, "An Untroubled Mind," in Agnes Martin: Writings—Schriften, pp. 37, 36.
9. There appear to be two exceptions to this absence of titling: The Sea (2003), a painting that in many ways calls to mind works from the early sixties such as Starlight (1963), alludes to the source of much of her vision and emotional attachment. Similarly, Homage to Life (2003), whose title recalls phrases from the preceding four years, bears a dark trapezoidal form, a form she designated as mountains in several formative drawings. Mountains, like the ocean, were a constant source of spiritual and emotional sustenance throughout her life.
10. I am indebted to Douglas Crimp for some of the ideas based in this notion of "the turmoil." See Douglas Crimp, "Back to the Turmoil," in The Eighth Square: Gender, Life and Desire in the Arts Since 1960, ed. Julia Friedrich, Kasper König et al. (Cologne: Museum Ludwig,