…going forward into unknown territory…
Agnes Martin’s Early Paintings 1957 – 1967
May 16, 2004 – April 18, 2005
Dia:Beacon Riggio Galleries
Agnes Martin: An Homage to Life
April 19 – June 30th, 2004
32 East 57th Street
Agnes Martin arrived at her signature style in the 1970s, when she was nearly 60. Within the narrow parameters she set for herself, a square format (72 inches x 72 inches until 1995, when she changed to 60 inches x 60 inches), thin washes of color, and straight graphite lines, the paintings were endlessly varied and beautiful. Reams of serious criticism have been written about them; her monastic lifestyle fascinates interviewers. Martin is now 92. Two concurrent exhibitions bracket some 30 years of her production with rarely seen paintings that preceded it, up at Dia:Beacon, and Martin’s most recent work at PaceWildenstein uptown.
“….going forward into unknown territory…Agnes Martin’s Early Paintings 1957 – 1967” at Dia:Beacon features an exploratory phase during the decade she lived in New York. Three linked galleries were specially constructed to display the 21 paintings on view in roughly three stages of chronological time and formal development. Martin moved to New York from the southwest in 1957 to join Betty Parson’s abstract expressionist gallery at Parson’s invitation. She settled into a loft on Coenties Slip near the Brooklyn Bridge in downtown Manhattan. Many paintings did not survive the artist’s severe editing, so what still exists is what passed muster, or was out of her reach. The latest painting in the show is dated 1965. Martin left New York in 1967, eventually relocating in New Mexico where she lives today.
The seven works from 1957 – 1959 in the first gallery straddle late abstract expressionism and color field painting. Drained of saturated hues, they’re like lunar reflections of these late modernist modes. “The Spring,” dating from 1958 and measuring 50 inches x 50 inches, salutes the planes and horizontal bands of Mark Rothko in shades of gray and white. Perhaps in an effort to find a color language without referring to modernist color, Martin established at this time a reductive palette of black and neutral tones in gray, yellow, and white oil paint brushed on thinly or applied with a knife. Aspects of Martin’s mature style were emerging in other ways. Her preference for the square format had come into place, from small sizes at 25 inches x 25 inches up to 65 inches x 65 inches, about the size she would eventually use consistently. Geometrical motifs, circles, triangles, and rectangular forms echo the Native American culture she had absorbed while teaching in the southwest. These motifs adapted well to the influence of Martin’s mentor at Betty Parsons Gallery, Barnett Newman. “Untitled,” from 1957, is a composition with a central white strip separating two equal black diamond shapes. Tonal modulation is evident in Martin’s underpainting and scumble, techniques she later discarded for acrylic washes. In “Window,” (1957), a pale ground surrounds four rectangles, two in gray set above two in pale yellow , as if to compress sky and earth into four congruent parcels of pigment.
In the second gallery, seven more paintings from 1959 to 1960 accentuate geometric form and introduce pencil line. The artistic milieu where Martin moved was keenly interested in eastern philosophy. Ancient Taoist writings of Lao Tse and Chuang Tzu inspired her with the lasting idea that inspiration comes from within. “Earth” (1959, 49 3/4 inches x 49 3/4 inches) has bands at the high and low extremities of the picture plane while a deep and uniform umber holds several rows of black dots. Delicate white pencil rims distinguish them upon close view. In “Untitled,” (1960) the vertical, bilateral symmetry Newman often used is rotated into a horizontal composition where the energy and speed of the vertical translate to an analog for planetary rotational movement, perhaps another allusion to southwestern landscape, Native American thought and culture. The pale circles at top and bottom could be a meditational motif from Tantric art.
“Untitled” (1959) uses the most pared down of painterly means to delineate simple forms. Here, twin white rectangles sit in tension within a dimmer field of white. Two smallish vertical paintings from 1959 are more like cuneiform tablets than picture planes. Their unusually thick surfaces in a creamy bone color are incised with graphite lines trailing through wet oil paint. One canvas is divided into a wide spaced grid that is regular yet handmade, while the other is segmented by horizontal lines interspersed with triangular outlines.
The third gallery contains the first grid paintings, dating from 1961 to 1965. Underpainting appears for the last time in “Night Sea,” from 1963, wherein gold leaf line peeks up between regular brush strokes in two shades of blue. “Flower in the Wind,” also from 1963, has a rose-tinted field with lots of vertical graphite lines activating the surface. “The Islands” (fig 4) is painted only with touches of white inside a graphite grid that leaves a border of plain canvas all around it. The natural color of flax threads pulled taut in the canvas weave plays its own part in the painting’s structure, surface, texture, and tone. Two gorgeous blue wash paintings with graphite lines from 1964 look similar except for an important switch: “The Peach” was done in oil, but “The Beach” initiates Martin’s use of acrylic paint.
Martin’s engagement with the grid, a motif that came to figure prominently in the art of the 1960s and 1970s was, for her, a “classical” ideal more in line with Chinese, Greek, Coptic, and Egyptian art than the Minimalist aesthetic emerging at the time. Curator Lynne Cooke’s excellent essay for “…going forward into unknown territory…” provides an insightful mix of historical background and visual analysis to ground the exhibition in its present context. She draws on previous critical writings on the artist’s work and includes a selected bibliography so one can always seek out other sources. Cooke is careful to point out that Martin did not think of herself as a Minimalist, but as a participant in late abstract expressionism. Martin entered the dialogue in her mid forties in 1957, rather late in the game for ab-ex, but she feels that that was her generation – no matter what anyone else thinks.
Critical tides shift, and as time goes on Martin’s work looks transitional in significant ways. It’s very interesting to see these early paintings exactly where they are right now at Dia:Beacon’s ground floor permanent galleries, around the corner from work of the 1960s and 70s that was attuned to the viewer in very specific ways. Martin’s graphite lines are echoed in Fred Sandback’s taut yarn sculptures tethered to wall, floor, and ceiling boundaries. As graphic surface, a Martin grid painting compares to Sol le Witt’s drawing installations, without their rational mathematical permutations. For both Heizer and Martin, the landscape of the American southwest held the inspiration of sublime infinities of light, space, and time. Martin’s paintings concentrate the viewer’s attention on proportion, linear exactitude, and laborious patience as surely as Michael Heizer’s plummeting, steel lined cavities set in the gallery floor impel a visitor to keep alert. By leaving Coenties Slip at the threshold of fame to settle back in New Mexico, she was painting in the lap of Earthworks territory.
In hindsight, the phenomenological aspect of art in this era mirrors the dilemma of real figures in the landscape who had to contend with the Vietnam War, FBI surveillance of private citizens protesting for civil rights, the Weather Underground’s bombs in American cities, political opacity. Perhaps the exponential growth in the scale and ambition of art had something to do with NASA and the exploration of outer space. Thought itself was getting bigger. These days, as natural light spreads through Dia:Beacon’s long exterior skylights during the approach of summer solstice, the works seem to accentuate human sensation, nature, and geometry as they might interact with unbounded landscapes. Martin’s sensibility is congruent with this sense of astronomical scale and distance.
Return now to earth, and from Dia:Beacon to PaceWildenstein where Martin’s most recent work is on view . In “An Homage to Life,” Martin recapitulates some of her least known past motifs and imbues them with fresh ideas. The 1957 motif of a double black diamond around a central axis rotates 90 degrees into side by side twin black triangles lit up with bright yellow green tips. Unusually dark graphite lines tether the pair against an energetically brushed gray wash ground. If this ancient masonic iconography looks familiar, look at the back of an American dollar bill, and on the left you will see an eye levitating over the top of an Egyptian pyramid. Martin has given away much of the money her paintings have earned over the years to a charity for abused adolescents.
Other paintings in this new series place strong, thickly painted black geometric figures
within wash grounds. In one, double black squares which at first glance look regular and symmetrical but are not hover in a a reddish orange wash. In another, a single obdurate and thickly painted trapezoid rests on a gray wash, again applied with energetic strokes. This same thick black paint is used to make one of Martin’s signature grids in reverse; lines created by the absence of black paint are so fine that they seem to bare a single thread of the canvas weave. Elsewhere, the familiar pale washes in blue, yellow, gray, with graphite line, return in unpredictable new combinations. Martin has often said that she paints what she sees in her mind. We may be sure that these departures from her best known work and recapitulations of her earliest themes are true to her classical ideal of innocence, happiness, and love.