I want to draw a certain response. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people
when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature—an experience of simple joy. . . .
the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.
—Agnes Martin, 1966
For over four decades, Agnes Martin rigorously adhered to an aesthetic she first formulated in the early 1960s. Clearly enunciated from the outset, its principles were thereafter reiterated in numerous interviews and lectures: she wished her art to conjure emotions of joy, innocence, happiness, even exaltation. Beauty and perfection were the means by which these untroubled mental states would be generated. Even though, for her, such sensations of beauty and perfection exist in the mind and not in the eye—in the thing seen—they nonetheless derive from experiences found in nature or in the arts: The boundless night sky, the limitless expanse of the ocean, and an abstract painting may all equally serve as a "field of vision" from which burgeons the congruent metaphysical condition.
Martin’s commitment to an aesthetic whose vocabulary was defined by self-imposed constraints yielded an unexpectedly varied range of expression, never more than during the 1980s. Highlighting the diversity of works from that decade, this exhibition is the fourth in an ongoing series of presentations designed to survey Martin’s paintings from the late fifties to her death in December 2004. Certain constants that have informed her practice from the moment it matured in the early sixties—notably the six-foot-square format, the graphite grid, the subdued palette, and suppressed expressive facture—provide the parameters for her endless formal experimentation, challenging the distorting commonplace that her art is monolithic: if her signature mid-sixties graphite grids on delicate monochrome grounds have become the hallmark of her art, they are not its only benchmark.
When introduced in the early sixties, the grid permitted an allover, unbounded, nonhierarchical compositional mode, which Martin equated with egolessness. Tightly drawn armatures hover just in front of the surface, and so create a veil, web, skein, or blush; the resulting visual tremolo, or optical sensation, seems held in suspension neither quite within nor in front of the pictorial frame. This dynamic perceptual field, this mobile space between painting and viewer, invites a highly tuned visual attentiveness, a slowing and concentrating of the gaze. Shortly after she made the statement used here as an epigraph, Martin abruptly abandoned painting and left New York City, where she had forged her artistic identity, to return to the high deserts of the American Southwest. Among the last paintings she made before quitting the city were two, The Cliff (1967) and Tundra (1967), that mark the poles of her practice during that fertile decade. As was her habit at that time, both titles reference nature. Composed of a fine but firmly limned graphite grid, The Cliff presents a monolithic vertical plane that creates a sheer, almost looming, surface. On approaching the painting, the spectator’s attention shifts register to concentrate on the minute fluctuations within individual lines; on withdrawing, the larger matrix, monumental and verging on the uninflected, gradually supervenes. The neutral monochrome ground onto which the pencil scaffold was laid barely registers here, so highly privileged is the medium of drawing. By contrast, in Tundra, possibly the last painting Martin executed in Manhattan, a more richly painted, dense white surface is barely interrupted by the merest hint of a grid, two vertical axes bisected by a single horizontal line. The superimposition of this grid’s enlarged interstices onto a ground more opaque than evanescent creates a diffuse space almost devoid of coordinates, a colorless, dimensionless field for which the title offers an apt analogue. Once again, the viewer searches to situate herself in relation to a nebulous space, or place, on the verge of the definable, between dissolution and coalescence.
Some five or six years later, now resident in New Mexico, Martin resumed painting. The earliest works that survive from the 1970s offer new formulations, while maintaining the scrupulous rectitude that had characterized her previous work. With no more than two colors—often, a pink and a blue—lightly washed over bright white grounds, the paintings’ surfaces are now subdivided into bands and stripes of varying widths. Although the compositions may be described in terms of divisions within a unitary field, the works as before are experienced as single entities rather than as composite wholes made from the sums of their parts; thus, though based literally in geometry and measurement, these compositions, like those previously based on grid structures, are read holistically. Working empirically through her ideas, painting by painting, Martin was henceforth able to introduce an intuitively determined form of seriality and permutation, resulting in groups of closely related works. The culmination of this slow, and probably intermittent, evolution over the course of the 1970s was a suite of twelve canvases composed of delicate blue and white bands, the landmark series known as The Islands (1979).
During the eighties, Martin pursued compositional structures exclusively based in horizontally oriented lines, bands, stripes, and "zips." And, with rare exceptions, she again refrained from titling individual paintings. 1 The eighteen works on view here attest to an intensive and seemingly uninterrupted probing of her fastidiously limited syntax in order to exploit subtleties of line and color, division and wholeness, tempo and rhythm, materiality and immateriality, surface and space. Their disarmingly simple forms and formats effect a tenuous balance between dispersal and concentration, containment and release. What is seen—or better, what is experienced— when engaging with one of Martin’s paintings from this decade is not an abstraction, if by abstraction is meant something removed from the here and now. Tailored to the dimensions of the viewer’s body—to her perceptual field and axial confrontation—each painting requires an attentive engagement, a way of looking that is detached yet not passive, far from introspective or subjective in reference: "classic" is the term the artist employed to describe this effect. 2 Even when closely related to others made in the same year, each work remains self-sufficient— autonomous—a singular "field of vision." Martin expressed the desire that this "plane of attention and awareness," 3 boundless but not unbridled, would generate the "abstract response, the response that we make in our minds free from concrete environment," a space that "is infinite, dimensionless, without form and void." 4 The question of whether and, if so, how this might link to states of joy or exaltation must depend on the responses of individual spectators; what is not in question is that those sensations of beauty, harmony, and even perfection, which individual paintings such as Untitled #21 (1988) provoke, speak to the mind as they engage the eye.
1. A single group from mid-decade bears such monikers as Plum Tree and Lemon Tree. Whatever prompted Agnes Martin to single out this group for such treatment, these works are in essence no different from the vast numbers of others she made in these fertile years, most of which are simply assigned a numeral and date.
2. This is "a size that you can walk into," Martin once explained. (Martin, quoted in Benito Eisler, "Life Lines," New Yorker [January 25, 1993], p. 81). It is the essential ingredient in establishing a visual field premised on a phenomenologically based encounter.
3. Martin, quoted in Michael Auping, "On Relationships," in Agnes Martin/Richard Tuttle (Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1998), p. 85.
4. Martin, "What Is Real," in Agnes Martin: Writings—Schriften, ed. Dieter Schwarz (Winterthur: Kunstmuseum, in association with Cantz, Ostifildern-Ruit, 1991), p. 95.