Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mothers of Invention, Part 3: Agnes Martin

Part 1: Carmen Herrera
Part 2: Hilma af Klint
Part 3: Alma Thomas

Subtle, Serene, Spare: Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim, New York City, October 7, 2016-January 11, 2017

Let me start with some facts about Agnes Martin in a narrative that is as reductive as her work: She was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912 and grew up in Vancouver. She moved to New York City 1932, where she trained at Columbia University to be a teacher. After a few years of teaching, she moved to New Mexico where she began to paint seriously. 

At the urging of dealer Betty Parsons she moved back to Manhattan in 1957 and found space to live and work on Coenties Slip in what is now the South Street Seaport area in Lower Manhattan. Her friends and neighbors included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, James Rosenquist and Lenore Tawney. Her early paintings reflect the abstract expressionism of her time—actually, I think they look rather Miro-like—but over time she distilled her expression into a distinctly minimalist style.

Here’s Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, and Tiffany Bell, Guest Curator, on Martin: “One of the few female artists who gained recognition in the male-dominated art world of the 1950s and ‘60s, Martin is a pivotal figure between two of that era’s dominant movements: Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Her content—an expression of essential emotions—relates her to the earlier group, the Abstract Expressionists, but her methods—repetition, geometric compositions, and basic means—were adopted by the Minimalists, who came to prominence during the ‘60s. Martin’s work, however, is more than a bridge between the two. It stands apart by never losing sight of the subjective while aspiring toward perfection. ‘I would like my pictures to represent beauty, innocence and happiness,” she said. I would like them all to represent that. Exaltation.’ ”

Martin eventually made her way back to New Mexico, where she would live for the rest of her life.  She died in 2004 at the age of 92.

You can read more about Martin on the Guggenheim website. What I'd like to do here is take you up the ramp to view the exhibition

Untitled, 1955, oil on canvas
(You can glimpse this painting in the view of the ramp, above. I'm including occasional ramp views so that you can get a better sense of the visual flow of the work)

The keyhole space leads to a reading room. In the foreground is the work you see below

Untitled, 1957, oil on canvas

Walking up the ramp we come to the large painting on the left:  This Rain, 1958, oil on canvas, shown larger below:

Walking past This Rain, we see . . .  

. . . a small study for the painting (1958, oil on canvas) and then Heather, 1958, oil on canvas,
shown larger below:

You are here, walking past This Rain and Heather

Continuing up the ramp: Untitled works from 1958 and 1959, oil on canvas

Untitled, 1959, oil and ink on canvas

Untitled, 1959, oil and graphite on canvas

In a niche off the ramp, a selection  of sculptures from 1958-1963

Below: The Wave, 1963, plexiglass, wood, and beads. This work was intended to be kinetic. When handled, beads within the box would create the ebb-and-flow sound of the ocean

Back on the ramp: a selection of works on paper. These were difficult to photograph, not only because of the glass but because of the lighting. (Indeed, the entire exhibition was lit in a way that tended to stymie my iPhone: daylight on one side, gallery lighting on the other, and that oppressively low, dark ceiling)

I think this untitled drawing is ink on paper from 1960. The triangles will reappear in her very late work

Continuing up the ramp. I loved the juxtaposition of large and small works. Both require up-close viewing, but while the large paintings envelope you as you look, the smaller ones are enveloped by your gaze

White Flower, 1960, oil on canvas

Untitled, 1960, oil on canvas

Martin's Coenties Slip neighbor was the weaver and sculptor Lenore Tawney. The textile sensibility in this painting is strong, as it is in several others you see in this post. I won't speculate on their cross-influences, but I'd guess there were some 

The Islands, 1961, oil and graphite on canvas

Detail below, with a fringe of pencil lines

A splendid selection of small paintings from 1961 and 1962 that seem more like drawings.  Those at each end are shown below

Blue Flower, 1962; oil, glue, nails and canvas on canvas and wood

Islands No. 4, ca. 1961, oil on canvas

Falling Blue, left, and Friendship, 1963, gold leaf and gesso on canvas

Friendship detail below

Falling Blue

An alcove of small grids on paper. From the nearby wall text: "When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees," Martin wrote. The farthest work on the wall is shown below

Summer, 1964; watercolor, ink, and gouache on paper

Walking up the ramp, I particularly liked the quiet  conversations between the small framed drawings and the larger paintings. A similar light red work is shown below

Untitled IX, 1982, acrylic and graphite on canvas

On a Clear Day, 1973, portfolio of 30 screenprints, printer's proof
The glazing made this installation difficult to photograph, but I did manage a detail below

A view of the ramp where On a Clear Day is installed

Untitled #3, 1974, acrylic and graphite on canvas

As we walk higher up the ramp, the architecture changes. Each bay is illuminated, which makes photographing a bit easier--but the work we encounter is so chromatically subtle that the camera has a hard time capturing the color. There are two other big changes here: We're seeing canvases of the same size, six feet square, and Martin has begun to use acrylic. This is the first work produced after Martin took a break from painting

Untitled #37, left, and Untitled #8, both 1974, acrylic and graphite on canvas

Below: View from the other direction

You are exactly where that gentleman is standing. As we continue up the ramp, these chromatically subtle paintings will give way to gray (and then to color again)

Untitled #12, 1984, and Untitled #3, 1983; both acrylic and graphite on canvas

With a few breathtaking exceptions, the work here and to the top of the ramp is primarily gray. Brushwork is light and loose. The wall text puts it this way: "The effort and intensity previously compressed into a single canvas now unfolds as a sequential experience with infinitely varied potential."

Closer view of Untitled #3
Detail below

I'm missing the information here, but both paintings are from about 1984, acrylic and graphite on canvas

Detail below of the painting on the left

Continuing up the ramp . . .

. . .  to Untitled #8 and Untitled #3, both 1989, acrylic and graphite on canvas

Untitled #5, 1998; Untitled #4, 1995; Untitled #6, 1994; all acrylic and graphite on canvas

Quoting from the wall text: "In 1992 Martin moved to a retirement home in Taos, New Mexico, where she lived the rest of her life. She obtained a studio and worked there consistently until a few months before she died in 2004. In 1993, at the age of 80, she reduced her format to 60 inches square, having found it difficult to handle the larger canvases she had long used on her own. In the last ten years of her career, she also reintroduced color and loosened her reliance on serially organized compositions, while still working within her unmistakable idiom."

Below, you can see the change in size

Untitled #16, 1997, and I Love the Whole World, 2000, both acrylic and graphite on canvas

I Love the Whole World

Untitled #16

Loving Love, 1999; Gratitude, 2001; and Blessings, 2000
All acrylic on canvas 

Gratitude, 2001

Almost at the top of the ramp. Geometric shapes are reincarnated from early work. We'll look more closely as the three paintings in this bay

Untitled #4, 2002, acrylic and graphite on canvas
The brushwork in these late paintings is loose and light, almost like watercolor

I don't have the titles for these paintings, but they are among the very last of her work

The curators describe the last geometric paintings as Martin's way of bringing her oeuvre full circle. Perhaps they are simply ideas she wanted to realize before her time was finished. (And perhaps we are saying the same thing)

These penultimate works seem so out of place in the timeline, don't they? I don't have the information about them, but they would have been painted between 2002 and 2004

This one recalls Martin's 1960 drawing which appears earlier in the post, a detail of which is below:

I was pondering this outlier when I reached the top of the ramp and saw the painting below, ensconced in its own bay. It is the last one Martin painted. It's impossible not to contemplate that the very last of her creative force went into this work. It is light, celestial, as if the heavens were achromatic and geometric

A closer look below:

Agnes Martin
Image from the internet


  1. Thank you Joanne for the images of Agnes Martin's works. She is an amazing painter and you have given me a deeper understanding of her thinking process. Martin is a genius at being a minimalist in her painting sensibility and she makes it look effortless. Her paintings glow.

  2. it is wonderful to have this step-by-step walkthrough of the show to revisit any time i need soul food. thank you, joanne, for documenting it for posterity. i'll visit to remind me of "the perfection underlying life," as agnes called her source of inspiration.

  3. What an ambitious post with so many images! This is a great documentation of the Agnes Martin show. I saw it myself but the Guggenheim was so purposely dark that it was difficult for me to see the work. I appreciate your brightening them and for your incisive commentary. Thank you!

  4. thank you Joanne for this excellent post. I was really surprised at her work towards the end of her life. She was an incredible artist who I had the privilege to study with at Skowhegan in 1987 and to visit her and her studio in Galesteo. I remember her talking about her black paintings she did after being the resident artist in Maine, she thought they were too negative and destroyed them.

  5. Thank you for this survey of the exhibit. I just returned from seeing it in person. You have captured some of the subtleties that can only be appreciated when viewing the actual works. I am inspired by her concept that beauty is not in the eye, but in the mind and therefore stays with you. I hope what I saw and how I felt when I saw this exhibit will stay with me forever. You have done a great job of capturing her essence for others to appreciate.

  6. Nice to see the photos. I saw the show in November, and felt at times that the building competed with the paintings. They stand better in isolation

  7. And to think it all began in 2012 at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico with Jina Brenneman as curator and Tiffany Bell guest curator. Well done, ladies!