PRINT January 1967

Agnes Martin: Recent Paintings

ONE CURRENT PREOCCUPATION OF CRITICISM is the accurate definition of the complex relationships obtaining between the efforts of younger painters and sculptors on the one hand and, what would, on the other, seem to be their Constructivist and neo-Piasticist precedents. A literature of critical distinction is developing with a rapidity which both symptomatizes and heightens the urgency of the problem, exacerbating, in its articulation of a formalist esthetics, the very historical consciousness in which that esthetics is grounded. There is a very particular sense in which the compositional dynamics of American sculpture and painting invoke historical precedents, only to bracket or negate them in the interest of fresh departures. An example of interest is provided by the recent paintings of Agnes Martin.

All these canvases measure 72'' by 72'' and are prepared with an acrylic base. Against white, off-white and buff grounds, verticals and horizontals are, for the most part, ruled in pencil. And here––almost immediately, that is––the intricacy of the descriptive task (reflected in a resistance to photographic reproduction almost as obdurate as that of Reinhardt’s or Robert Irwin’s painting) compels one to pause. I find that in the pause, the following text recalls itself hesitantly but irresistibly, rather in the manner of an inscription in invisible ink, to memory:

Feeling the lack of unity, I brought the rectangles together. Uniting the rectangles was equivalent to continuing the verticals and horizontals of the former period over the entire composition. It was evident that rectangles, like all particular forms, obtrude themselves and must be neutralized through the composition. In fact, rectangles are never an aim in themselves but a logical consequence of their determining lines, which are continuous in space; they appear spontaneously through the crossing of horizontal and vertical lines. Moreover, when rectangles are used alone without any other forms, they never appear as particular forms, because it is contrast with other forms that occasions particular distinction . . .

More and more I excluded from my painting all curved lines, until finally my own compositions consisted only of vertical and horizontal lines . . . it seemed to me that (this) unity could be created in a more real way than it had ever been done in the art of the past. Through my plastic experience, I became cognizant of the truth that the abolition of all particular form is the only way to accomplish this. . . . In art as in reality, the plurality of varied and similar forms annihilates the existence of forms as entities. Similar forms do not show contrast but are in equivalent opposition. Therefore they annihilate themselves more completely in their plurality.*

These statements by Mondrian do apply with a compellingly descriptive literalness to all of Martin’s work; they fail nevertheless, to wholly account for what her paintings are or do.

I return, then, to the descriptive task, beginning once again from the beginning. “All these canvases measure 72'' by 72'' and are prepared with an acrylic base. Against white, off-white and buff grounds, verticals and horizontals are, for the most part, ruled in pencil.” The use of the T-square and stretched, occasionally shifted string confer upon these ruled lines a subtle unevenness, an occasional accent, a kind of visual tremolo. There will be, on a given surface, and owing to the shifting of the ruling edge, zones of greater intensity; within a given area measuring five or six centimeters, there will be a darkening of the ruled area or a seeming tendency of the lines to spread and join, thereby suggesting flatness rather than a rigorous striation.

In other canvases there will be a slightly greater darkness or rigidity of the verticals which, while giving them dominance, sets off the unevenness of the horizontals, heightening a wavering or oscillation. Generally, the work explores the uses of interval and its interest is rhythmic, involving, at its most complex, single verticals (and/or horizontals) played off against groups of closely placed horizontals and/or verticals. As much as many paintings, and more than most, these canvases raise the question of optimum viewing distance, for the threshold of perception established by the linear oscillation, rhythmical subtleties or any other of the “parameters” is pitched so high.

It is, of course, this high pitch which accounts for the intensity and intimacy peculiar to one’s experience of Miss Martin’s work and which relates it to that of slightly younger contemporaries. The intensity and intimacy seem to inflect critical discourse in the direction of evocation, while the precision to which that intimacy is directly proportionate impels the writer toward descriptive refinement. (Current criticism still navigates a bit uneasily within the straits defined by an impressionist style and an analytic approach; neither, of course, seems to render account of a work whose ultimate ineffability is determined by the rigor of its arithmetic rationale.) Looking at Agnes Martin’s paintings, one reaches for a tape measure, only to relinquish it, knowing that verification of that rationale will in no way account for the interest of the work.

The tape measure can, however, facilitate the descriptive task. Rose and The Lake are canvases entirely covered with verticals placed at intervals of four centimeters and intersected by horizontals ruled five centimeters apart. Together they form a pair (among others) which, while developing, in modes of varying strictness, a given problem or rationale, help us to situate Miss Martin’s work more precisely. In Rose both the relation of vertical to horizontal and the manner in which they “induce” the rectangle are proclaimed with an imperious simplicity, for the lines are evenly ruled, equally intense, and the unity of the colored surface is absolute. In The Lake this relation and this induction are established in or over, a grey-white surface, mottled or dappled, somewhat atmospherically so. Within the limits set by these two canvases one finds Miss Martin’s finest work––in paintings such as Feast and Pilgrimage, whose scale and rhythm perform the task obscured by the ambiguity of The Lake’s dappled ground, while managing to enrich the exemplary statement of Rose.

Through the intransigent multiplication of the induced rectangles proposed by Mondrian, this painting looks back, curiously enough, to that destruction of the surface’s hierarchy which, originating in Pollock and Tobey, developed through the painting of the ’40s and ’50s. By pushing that multiplication as far as it could go and, in addition, repress ing the suggestion of any spatial depth, Miss Martin attains an “annihilation of the existence of forms as entities” typical of the sixties. The Mondrianesque principle seems to have been used as a kind of lever with which to situate her effort in a context which discards the style and the allegiances of both neo-Plasticism and the more recent past. At her strictest and best––as in Feast and Pilgrimage––she sends the beholder shuttling back and forth between the visible realization of order and the implication of a determining rationale. The pleasure inheres in a demonstration of a modern esthetics of adequacy; Miss Martin reminds us that “enough is (indeed) as good as a feast.”

––Annette Michelson



* In Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, and Other Essays, Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., New York, 1947.