A retrospective show can sometimes be so expansive that it can contrive a sense of knowing a lot about an artist without ever delving too deep beneath the surface. The work of Agnes Martin (1912-2004) — an abstract painter inspired foremost by innocence, which she found in trees, and who wished above all to initiate happiness within the viewer — is so self–possessed, so generous, and so open that this sense of knowing seems purposefully and permanently left to the viewer. Martin herself said, “there is so much written about art that it is mistaken for an intellectual pursuit.” Pre-intellectual perceptions — subjects that cannot be represented in images or words — are the objective of her abstract canvases.
After a string of different jobs and hobbies, among them teaching and competitive swimming, the Canadian-born Martin began her career as an artist at the age of 30, arriving at her characteristically placid paintings at age 50. She worked in New York among the Abstract Expressionists for a decade, and when she left New York, in 1967, she continued painting every day of her life from her studio in rural New Mexico until just a few months before her death at 88.
Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim opens with a small canvas from 1954, “Mid-Winter,” in which grey, purple, and black amoebic forms are suspended in space. It is interesting to be given a glimpse of the young Agnes Martin. It’s also quite pertinent that this retrospective, organized in collaboration with the Tate and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, should begin its New York iteration with these early globular works, not the theosophy-inspired empty grids we are accustomed to, because the early works were essential to her relationship with the city: these were the sort of paintings that Betty Parsons saw in 1957, when she decided she wanted to represent the artist, granted that Martin (who was then living in Taos, New Mexico) move to New York.
The first small gallery immediately shifts to her phenomenal 1979 series, The Islands I-XII: twelve subdued white canvases with minute horizontal striations that repeat at varied intervals — intervals which are perceptible but whose meaning is incomprehensible. Yet, Martin also said, “My paintings are not about what is seen — they are about what is forever in the mind.” She was endlessly striving to materialize these universal and internal sensations — such as overwhelming awe of nature, akin to the notion of the sublime, in the most ambiguous of material articulations: art. Philosophical notions of the sublime posit nature’s mystifying vastness — suggested by Martin’s unending horizontal lines—as inspiration for the realization that the universe is ceaseless, an understanding which would bring indescribable peace.
The show, comprised of a staggering one hundred and fifteen works, proceeds chronologically up the rotunda, but the non-linear elements in her work — triangles, lozenges, and trapezoids from very early paintings that resurface in her final works, as well as some unexpectedly figurative sculpture from her New York years — are allowed to shine through. Dozens of geometrically suggestive drawings, with evocative titles like “The Egg” (1963) — which the artist asserted were works in their own right, not studies for paintings — hold their own with her paintings.
At the top of the rotunda, her final works (painted in 2004) appear exalted, with natural light flooding in from the Guggenheim’s giant glazed oculus. LACMA’s prior installation of the show, as well as an ongoing show at the Hardwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico (the latter in a room designed in tandem with the artist), deploy a skylight to similar effect. It works extraordinarily. The pastel tones of her tenebrously shaded works from this period appear to emanate light from within, not unlike the sun-drenched soil of a flat, bright New Mexico plain. Both nature and art speak to the viewer, and in essence, the self —as long as one can drown out the din of flocking tourists and sit on the benches ingeniously placed far enough from the works that the unflappable lines of Martin’s hand dissipate into tremulous frequencies of grey, pink, white, and pale green.
This uninterrupted stroll through nearly six decades of work reminds one of how few other artists from her generation sustained such long, capable, trajectories in art-making. The intriguing details of her life —struggles with schizophrenia, veiled homosexuality, a penchant for long meandering road trips and moves across the country, and many odd jobs— are also present, both in wall texts and bits of personal ephemera. Fortunately, these sparely selected wall texts and personal ephemera leave only a mild imprint on the work that fades as you step back, just like the lines on the canvas.
In 1998, in a commemorative essay, Holland Cotter wrote, “Martin’s conviction about art’s function in the world seems to be channeled from a time when words like ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ and ‘ideal’ carried real definitional weight.” Almost twenty years later, this seems more relevant than ever. The notion that a painting could be a portal to universally shared, pre-cognitive sensations seems incredibly romantic when we consider the anxious, hyper-speed consumption of images to which we are mostly conditioned.
Yet, for a woman in the 1950s and onward to disassociate herself from conventional life, with the personal conviction to make pictures of nothing that were meant to represent everything, Martin’s work is radical. This is especially apparent in the late works, in which only one or two horizontal lines sprint across the canvas, ostensibly into infinity. Martin appears to be tackling the boundlessness of form through the finitude of her own body — the canvases were approximately 8 x 8 feet — and pushing the possibilities of perception with an almost inconceivable austerity of material.
In “Advice to Young Women Artists” (a handwritten note encased in a little glass vitrine with other letters and exhibition flyers) Martin discusses her need for independence, which for her meant being “unrelated to society.” And independent she was. In 1967 she further distanced herself from society by leaving New York for what was to be a two-year road trip. This ended with her moving back to New Mexico permanently, where she lived out her days in a remote hut on a mesa.
By willfully extricating herself from the world of her fellow artists (she had been living and working with Lenore Tawney, Ad Reinhardt, and others who had had a substantial influence on her) it seems Martin was able to find the sublime experiences she sought to capture in the silence of the desert. Her independence from society reconnected her to nature. For Martin, both nature and art offered a purified experience of the self. If we approach Martin’s paintings as sublime images, then the act of viewing and feeling, prior to and distinct from the act of knowing, should instill an inexpressible sensibility that triggers joy and delight. We need not know too much about it or about her to in order to do so.
Agnes Martin continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 11, 2017.