The first time I saw Agnes Martin’s work in a gallery space was at Dia:Beacon. As so many others have no doubt done too, I went there alone, to escape the city. It was a crisp Fall day and on the train ride up, the Hudson river flickered through the window in flashes of green and silver. I saw a lot of work that day that sent me home on a new trail of thought – but Martin’s work in particular stayed with me. This week – years after that first sighting – I went to Agnes Martin’s most recent retrospective at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea, New York. Titled ‘The 80’s: Grey Paintings’ – it unites more than twenty grey paintings, concentrating on horizontal divisions of six-foot square canvases, that haven’t been exhibited together for more than two decades. On entering, you are immediately confronted with a sense of scale that is difficult to articulate. Martin’s work, despite its muted and understated aesthetic, is nevertheless arresting. Her paintings are a reduction of our sensory experience – of the information that is the make-up of our lives – to a clear and direct ideology that made Martin one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist of her generation. Though often categorized as a Minimalist, Martin rejected the comparison stating “I believe in the hand. [Minimalists] believe in mechanical reproduction.”
To some, the paintings in the show – an endless series of pencil lines, dividing the canvas with a palette of greys – might seem uninspiring, or repetitive, because they lack overt signifiers, which anchor artistic thought to our physical world. But when looking at Martin’s work, and to identify her vision, you have to consider her life and the context in which this work was made, and the philosophy that was born out of that context. Born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, in March 1912, Martin was the granddaughter of covered-wagon men and women who intuitively knew their way around America’s wild and vast landscape. After an athletic childhood and a near turn as an Olympic swimmer, Martin went on to receive an impressive education; graduating from Teacher College, Columbia in 1942, and once again in 1952 with a Master of Fine Arts. During her many years spent in New York, she lived for a time on Coenties Slip, south of Wall Street, where neighbors included Jack Youngerman, James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana and Delphine Seyrig. She used to share breakfast with Ellsworth Kelly and watch cowboy movies with Richard Tuttle. However, this rich and colorful city life came to an end in 1967, when Martin took a 7 year hiatus from painting and left New York to travel alone around the Western U.S and Canada in a pick-up truck and camper. She finally settled on New Mexico where she built herself a small and modest adobe brick house. This period in her career was to mark the beginning of a new life for Martin and from 1974 on she painted prolifically, with a new aesthetic, leading a solitary existence for the past 30 years of her life, until her death in 2004 at the age of 92.
This relatively isolated life, without TV, little music and few visitors – away from the art scene in New York – was to become a definitive influence on her work, and one which Martin consciously aspired toward. Her inspiration now was the subtle evocation of the natural landscape around her and in New Mexico she was able to focus entirely on her art. As Martin herself put it, “Most people are so distracted by what’s going on around them that they have trouble realizing that they have abstract emotions. But if an artist can depict those emotions, and if people respond to the art, then they realize that they’ve had those same emotions all the time, without knowing it.”
Unless artwork is intently biographical – say for example, Tracey Emin’s embroidered blankets or a self-portrait of Lucian Freud – just for a moment, it is necessary to suspend all projected knowledge about the artist, in order to experience the art viscerally. However, despite Martin’s desire to remove herself from her work, I find it difficult to look at the paintings without thinking of her. For me at least, her character, her story, seeps through with every stroke of the brush. This biographical entanglement is equally impressed on us by the Pace Gallery. The first thing you see upon entering the show is Charles R. Rushton’s portrait of Martin, hanging in the entrance. Using this photograph as introduction ensures Martins lingers with us as we walk through the space. Not only that, but it also provokes us to to rethink any preconceived notions of ‘the abstract artist’, and sends a subtle message to unwitting visitors that the artist behind this very progressive work is not a man but a woman. Though she disassociated herself with the feminist movement, Martin remains a pivotal figure in the emergence of female artists in the then largely male world of modern art and one can’t help but recognize this in a retrospective of her work.
It is a triumph when someone can lead a life as autonomous as Agnes Martin, and have their work hanging on the walls of a gallery in Chelsea, years after their death. The art itself has triumphed. There is great pressure on young artists today to align themselves with a particular sense of aesthetic, or scene. Compounding this, mass media and an over-saturation of pop culture has resulted in a reign of ‘the Ego’. Martin was one artist who was adamantly opposed to the idea of ‘the Self’ in art. “Artwork is a representation of our devotion to life,” she wrote. “The enormous pitfall is devotion to oneself instead of to life. All works that are self-devoted are absolutely ineffective.” Martin’s influence and world wide critical acclaim, in the midst of her humble approach to living, is proof that you don’t need the trappings of what society presumes to be success, in order for your work to be recognized. If you align yourself with your inner notion of truth and stick to it, over time – you will achieve success by your own standards – not those of others. Martin should be admired not just for her work and artistic intent, but her devotion to the making of art, and refusal to succumb to any notions of protocol one must follow to further an artistic career.
She is of course, not the first artist to work prolifically within an isolated circumstance, producing great works of art as a result. Painters, writers, musicians and many more have done it for decades. Yet so often, those times of solitude are romanticized in the resulting work, and the true essence and purpose of such a time, is lost and forgotten. Martin has captured this essence in her work. Hilton Kramer, the critic and editor of the New Criterion, describes her paintings as “religious utterance, almost a form of prayer.”
In Charles R. Rushton’s portrait, Martin sits in what appears to be a rocking chair next to one of her paintings. In that photo, I see an aging woman, but one with strength and integrity. Her wide, childlike eyes and relaxed demeanor show a lack of self -consciousness: a rare quality that is both disarming and endearing. In the midst of the Chelsea art scene, Martin’s show presents an opportunity to step away from it all all and reflect not on one’s self or your own artistic ambition – but a complete disassociation with your surroundings – and to engage with art that was made viscerally, with pure artistic intent. Even if you are no great fan of Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism – the show at the Pace Gallery is worth seeing if only to pay homage to a woman who was both courageous in her practice and a true example of how rich life can be, even if you choose to live most of it alone.
‘Agnes Martin: The ‘80s: Grey Paintings’
The Pace Gallery
534 W. 25th Street NY, NY 10001
Exhibit up through Oct 29th, 2011
Top Image: Portrait of Agnes Martin, Photograph by Charles R. Rushton
All installation photos of Agnes Martin: The ‘80s: Grey Paintings taken by G.R. Christmas
All Images Courtesy of The Pace Gallery