PRINT April 1973

Lawrence Alloway

TWO QUOTATIONS: “Agnes Martin’s channels of nuance, stretched on a rack of linear tensions which ‘destroy the rectangle’ are the legendary examples of an unrepetitive use of a repetitive medium.”1 Thus Lucy Lippard. Robert Pincus-Witten: “Eva Hesse’s drawing during 1966–68 emphasized modular and grid arrangements alluding, in this way, to the high regard in which Agnes Martin was held.”2 Martin’s reputation is clearly stated here, both her status as legend and the interest of other artists. She ceased to paint in 1967 which did nothing to diminish her high if narrowly based reputation. An exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (which will travel, slightly augmented, to the Pasadena Art Museum) is the first opportunity to see Martin’s work extensively, beyond the scale of one-man shows which are restricted in time as well as in size.

The developmental changes within the uniform fields set up by Martin’s grids are clear as never before. The first grids, of 1959–62, are marked by a tough, laconic handling of lines and points, often on bare brown canvas. The paintings of 1963–65 reveal an enrichment of color and a smoothing of the surface, as in Orange Grove and Falling Blue, an extension of range, but with no diminution of Martin’s initial rigor. In the paintings of 1966–67 the surface is harder and the grids sharper, coinciding with a move from oil to acrylic paint. This eight-year progress is approximately from rough to rich to systematic, though the systems are there from the beginning and the touch is direct to the end. There is avowed variation in the earlier pieces, different emphases on the dots and dashes, as in Starlight, 1962, for example. In later paintings, such as The Cliff, 1966, regularity is maintained more strictly, except in close-up, when the variations of ruled pencil lines on canvas, an uneven surface compared to paper, become evident. The outward variables of the early work become internalized, a part of the technical means of making the painting. The burr of graphite and the shifting placement of the lines are paced like natural irregularities, the currents in water or the wind on a field.

Another source of variation, though not one given autographically, occurs in viewing pictures carrying such sustained regular patterns. The bunching together of many straight lines, parallel or crosshatched, tends to induce larger momentary groupings in the spectator’s vision. Thus The Cliff tends to display patches of texture when viewed from the side and Falling Blue resembles slightly worn corduroy. Suzanne Delehanty’s choice of paintings and drawings, from 1957–67, is discriminating and exact. Her hanging, which included 15 of the 72“ x 72” paintings in the larger gallery of the Institute, and six white paintings in a row in the smaller gallery, was an exemplary demonstration of the way in which hanging like paintings together leads to their individuation.

Martin’s works thrive in the absence of opticality. Obviously they are visible, but they function with out the rhetorical devices of the paintings that seem to resemble hers. Opticality is the property ascribed to Clement Greenberg-approved painters, the supposed special province of painting as opposed to sculpture or drawing. Opticality can be recognized as an artist’s aim by a combination of such properties as intensity of color, the relation of one color to another (which includes acute edge control), and the absorption of positive and negative forms into a unified field. In early Artforum criticism these properties were signaled by such words as “modernist,” “ambitious,” and “advanced.” The paintings that did not earn these prized adjectives were retrogressive, provincial, or easy. In Martin’s first appearances in New York, at Betty Parsons’ Section Eleven3 in the late ’50s, she was associated with Paul Feeley, Alexander Liberman (then hard-edge), Ad Reinhardt, Leon Polk Smith, and Sidney Wolfson. It became clear later that Martin’s place was not really with these painters, all of whom were concerned with painterly effects, either of high color or the fusion of color. The fact that Martin’s layouts are symmetrical, however, is not sufficient to align her with the symmetry of early Liberman or with Albers. The “humbleness” and the physicality of her means differ fundamentally from the optical, painterly criteria of the painters with whom she shared a gallery or knew as friends in and around Coenties Slip (she had a studio on South Street from 1957).

Judging from Martin’s earlier work (discussed in this issue by Lizzie Borden) she did not reach the symmetrical format of her mature work via geometric art. Her early imagery, on the contrary, was soft, free-form, amorphous, and if linear, digressive and irregular. Her works were always attached to a concept of inwardness and even landscape references imply states of mind, psychic spaces. Thus, when in 1957 her imagery became symmetrical it must be presumed to be talismanic and tabletlike in character. Her paintings by this date, although not openly manifesting a grid form, rested on the definition of painting as a sequence of recurrent points or a holistic form with kinship to the form of the canvas itself.

Various precedents exist for her patiently repetitive paintings, such as the small Islands No. 1, 1960, or the large Dark River, 1961. These include Albers, but Martin avoids his smooth color transparencies, and Ellsworth Kelly, whose one-color panels, 195253, could have been seen in his New York studio, near her own. However, his de Stijl-like solid blues and pinks are very different from the roughly drawn marks and bare textures on fine brown canvas, that Martin used. These simple means conferred on her work a craft character which is given as both structure and image. The directness of its making is evident and connotes a kind of virtue; in addition, there are resemblances to sewn or stitched objects and to the sign systems used in crafts, such as the rows of triangles used in several works of 1959–61, which could be American Indian or Romanesque. The closest precedent I can think of is not American, although Albers, Kelly, and John McLaughlin could have directed her thoughts toward holistic rather than contrasting composition. However Mondrian’s plus-and-minus drawings of 1915 combine a comparable degree of formalization in the signifiers without losing contact with a signified scene. In Mondrian’s case it was the dunes and the sea; in Martin’s case it appears to be aspects of landscape that can be schematized by the repetition of identical or similar units. Indicative titles include: The Beach, Desert, Earth, Field, Garden, Happy Valley, Islands, Milk River, Night Sea, Orange Grove, Wheat, White Stone. Although these titles are not openly descriptive, they are consistent and have a definite congruence to the visual imagery. The signifieds are all compatible with a notion of the world regarded in terms of synonymous forms and continuous surfaces (as opposed to`contrasting forms and divided surfaces). The linear grid of Song, 1962, is like an architectural pattern, specifically a Romanesque blind arcade, which is a possible link to Mondrian’s interests as well as to those pictures by Mark Tobey in which he takes the forest analogy of Gothic architecture literally as his subject. However, Martin’s paintings are resolutely frontal.

The nonopticality of Martin’s work withholds it from the canon of end-state color configurations general in the late ’50s and ’60s. One reason for her ability to resist the prevailing norms of finish and color may have to do with her age. She was born in 1912 and is thus associated with the Abstract Expressionists in age, or with Ad Reinhardt, born in 1913, whose position is less with the Abstract Expressionists, with whom he had social ties, than with (earlier) geometric art and (later) hard-edge. Martin, unlike Reinhardt, retains a manual candor in her work, characteristic of her generation, and, no less characteristic, a belief in the possibility of exalted subject matter. (On this matter Reinhardt was ambiguous: on the one hand, dim cruciform layouts and, on the other, sec statements that seem to refer more to the younger abstract painters of the ’60s than to his own work.) Technically the surfaces of Martin’s paintings are sparse, the marks drawn rather than painted, dabbed on, or ruled, as often in pencil as in paint.

With the establishment of the declared grid, rather than an implicit one as in various works since 1957, Martin achieves her mature style. At first, the grid is used to define an area just within the canvas, a few inches from the edges, with a potential forunitary form that Martin was early to realize in American art. As she draws it, the grid is halfway between a rectangular system of. coordinates and a veil. It is put down in pencil, so that the network consists of marks far less clearly given than we are accustomed to in American painting, with its usual standard of impact and unrelieved clarity. Thus the grid, though tight, does not close the surface, but establishes an open plane, identified with the surface of the picture but accumulating sufficient differences to suggest, for all its regularity, a veil, a shadow, a bloom. These early grids are hung inside the canvas, away from the edges, but from about 1964 the area of the grids is extended to the edges of the canvas, making a single undifferentiated tremor of form, or a plateau of nonform, across the whole surface. By removing the internal boundaries of the grid, by which it was seen to stop and start, Martin emphasizes not the succession of the modular bits, but the wholeness of the module, its occupancy of space rather than its duration in time. Accepting the format of the painting (that is, the shape of the ground) as an absolute, as we must be prepared to do in interpreting painters’ ideas of space, it is possible to say that Martin’s seamless surface signifies, for all its linear precision, an image dissolving. The uninflected radiant fields are without the formal priorities of figure and field or hierarchic ranking of forms and the skinny grids are set in monochrome colors that make visible the shifting gradients of real light across the painting. The effect is of exactness and elusiveness at once.

Martin has pointed out that “my formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square, they are rectangles a little bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power.”4 The grids vary in size, emphasis, and color from one painting to another: in Park the rectangles are 5/16“ wide by 11/8” long and in Desert they are 3/4“ wide and 1/2” long; the grid in Park is drawn in green pencil and that in Desert in lead pencil. Max Kozloff pointed out that “the micro-intervals of these works seem to contract upon examination. They hover on the verge of becoming tone, but never lose their porosity.”5 The grid is, of course, a network of uniform elements and Martin does not depart from the stimulus domain,6 the set of rules by means of which each pattern is constructed, but the whole grid is characterized physically by her way of working. Her pencil lines on canvas, for all their modesty, have an inherent sensuous facture, an irreducible blur beyond the theoretical structure of the grid. A play of irregularizing refinements, which never become deviations from the prescribed system, is set up. The legibility of the system is held, the presence of the module never in doubt, though it supports not only a proposition concerning order but unpredictable physical variations as well.

Martin wrote that: “There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall.”7 One of her paintings is called Falling Blue, but it is not necessary to assume that the words describe this painting or, conversely, that the painting illustrates these words. However, the experience Martin refers to includes factors of repetition and continuity (the changing water in a stable course) and of motion contracted into timelessness. The synonymic forms that she uses, then, may be analogous to geological strata, a handful of sand, the sun reflected on water, or the planting of a grove. “Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it,”8 to quote Martin again, which is something that can be said about the quivering space of her own paintings.

There is some reason not to make too much of Martin’s nature metaphors, despite her imagery’s smoldering evocative power. To quote the artist: “my paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness breaking down form.”9 She concludes the argument aphoristically: “You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean.” Allowing for the difference between a compact zone, like a painting, and a boundless field, the continuous space of the world, oceans do have form. And endlessness can be connoted by a contained work of art in one of two ways, either by an allover field or by a grid with a sufficient number of repetitions. A collection of similar bits, beyond easy counting, implies infinity; that is why the internal area of a Martin painting can seem so highly expansive. It is clear that in her paintings the parts are submitted to the larger structure that the picture constitutes as a whole. Thus the painting is an image of wholeness and this is not merely a demonstration of formal completeness but a symbolic value as well. The unitary system of the picture becomes expressive of stability, fullness, and completeness as subject matter. The form of the painting itself becomes, to use E.H. Gombrich’s phrase, “a visual metaphor of value.”10 To quote Martin again: “Walking seems to cover time and space but in reality we are always just where we started.”11 When one looks at a legible and sustained module, it can be said that one part predicts the other parts. This is true in the case of Martin, but the image of walking without progress is a clue to the reading of her grids in another way. One section of the grid or one row of it is locked into the others so that we get not an effect of succession (prediction and confirmation), but of an invariant pattern divulged all at once. The effect is not of simultaneity, which is too sharp a word, but of arrested movement revealed; the grid is still because the whole can be grasped by the eye and the mind at once.

Martin, in a manuscript note, writes: “Everyone recognizes the nature pattern of unequal and contesting parts. Classicism forsakes the nature pattern.”12 In another place she writes a poem:

The underside of the leaf
Cool in shadow
Sublimely unemphatic
Smiling of innocence

The frailest stems
Quivering in light
Bend and break
In silence

She comments on it: “This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”13 This view is not incompatible with the nature imagery that I see in her work, because nature as “unequal and contesting” is one thing and landscape images cultivated by mental laws, which is the area of Martin’s iconography, are something else.The value that she places on what is “known” rather than “seen” suggests innate ideas, which she sometimes calls “a memory of perfection.” “Although I do not represent it well in my work, all seeing the work, being already familiar with the subject, are easily reminded of it.”14 Thus, the esthetic criterion of wholeness has the function of confirming preexisting patterns in the mind. In another of her manuscript notes, one entitled “Response to Art,” she has this to say of the relationship of artist and spectator:

The cause of the response is not traceable in the work. An artist cannot and does not prepare for a certain response. He does not consider the response but simply follows his inspiration.

Works of art are not purposely conceived. The response depends upon the conditions of the observer.15

Thus it is clear that Martin’s belief in innate ideas, what she calls her classicism, does not lead her to simplify the function of art. She rejects the idea that a common pattern in both the artist’s and the spectator’s mind facilitates communication by a process of standardization, a common fault of idealist theory. She allows for the fact of diversity of spectator response and interpretation, despite her inclination toward classical fixity. Her invariant patterns do not take the forms of a canon of absolute geometry, imposed inexorably on the painting, but constitute a sense of contact which occurs when the artist’s and spectator’s minds converge, despite their indifference to one another.

In the catalogue of the exhibition, Ann Wilson has collected oral and written statements by Martin, and Lizzie Borden prints another statement here. Recurrent themes wind through these brief, pointed sentences. Classicism is one: “Before it’s represented on paper it exists in the mind.”16 Another topic is her separation from religion:

The idea is independence and solitude Nothing religious in my retirement17

Earlier she wrote: “I paint out of certain experiences not mystical.”18

. . . praise to most artists is a little embarrassing They cannot take credit for inspiration19
In a big picture a blade of grass amounts to not very much
Worries fall off you when you can believe that pride is in abeyance when you think that20

There is in her statements, then, an idealistic belief in inspiration and innate ideas and, at the same time, a reluctance to be thought religious or mystical. She wishes to rid herself of pride and the small rectangles or lines of her pictures imply the humble in their modest scale and because they are simple means. “In graphic arts and all the arts technique is a hazard even as it is in living life.”21 This complex of ideas, involving noninstitutional revelation, personal modesty, links between the one and the many, the great and the small, seems distinctively American. Nature is both approached and transcended, respected and rejected. Without nostalgia there are puritan and folk elements in Martin’s discourse, openly in the parables like the Willie Stories printed by Ann Wilson, but persistently in all her images.

Lucy Lippard points out that “perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, many of the artists who have drawn a particularly unique interpretation from the grid’s precise strains are women.”22 To the extent that women artists use grids Martin is a probable influence on their practice. That is to say, rather than taking grids as an inherent tendency of women’s art, I consider their use to be learned and, in fact, the aura surrounding Martin and the influence of Lippard herself may be precisely the predisposing factors. It is notable that a number of the women artists who use grids, or synonymous forms, are associated with the Women’s Ad Hoc Committee, of which Lippard was a cofounder. There may be a factor special to women and that is their recent willingness to use domestic techniques such as sewing and pleating in the construction of searching works of art. Martin implies this kind of repetitive technique by forms that resemble stitching and by occasional reminiscences of the motifs on American Indian textiles. On the other hand, there is the fact that her series of square canvases, starting in the late ’50s, not only anticipate Reinhardt’s series of black squares, 1960–66, but rival him in the pursuit of a subversive equilibrium. Here the comparison is simply between artists, not between women artists. Sol LeWitt’s pencil drawings on the wall, which started in 1968, may be an extrapolation of Martin’s incorporation of the pencil into painting. The combination of the grid image and the promotion of the pencil to major usage suggest such a link. Martin is, I think, unique for her use of direct pencil marks within full-bodied painting. The variable interpretation of LeWitt’s instructions for his delegated drawings function in a way comparable to the varieties of manual pressure in Martin’s work.

American postwar art is distinguished by its ostentatious physical presence. The elaboration of gesture by the Abstract Expressionists, the lateral expansion of color by the field painters, the stepping up of hue by the hard-edge painters, and the stress on the objectness of sculpture in Minimal Art are all cases of artists accepting the mutually supportive goals of concreteness and handsomeness. Comparatively few American artists withhold their art from this competitive mode but, as it happens, grids are conspicuous in the case of three artists who do. Martin’s square canvases are reserved in appearance and unassuming in their means; LeWitt’s drawings, on walls or paper, are diagrammatic in form and undogmatic in their permutations; and Carl Andre’s floor sculptures (except for the uncharacteristically showy 37 Pieces of Work on the floor at the Guggenheim) occupy space firmly but without any drama of protuberance and void. In all three artists, the pleasure of synonymity and the discipline of restraint are essential to achieving a reserved art on a large scale. It should not be thought that this is a complaint about objects as such, only about their escalation. This is not an argument for “dematerialization,” only for restraint. An artist like Martin can fill the house with a whisper.



1. Lucy R. Lippard, “Top To Bottom, Left To Right,” Grids, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1972.

2. Robert Pincus-Witten, Eva Hesse, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1972, p. S.

3. Section Eleven was an adjunct to Betty Parsons Gallery from 1958 to 1960 (for two seasons, that is to say). Aside from other artists she showed a group of hard-edge painters who characterized the gallery more than contesting trends. Hard-edge meant, originally, the coloristic, post-Abstract Expressionist, extension of geometric painting that took place in the United Slates in the late ’50s.

4. Agnes Martin, “Homage to the Square,” Art In America, July-August, 1967, p. 55.

5. Max Kozloff, “Art,” The Nation, November 14, 1966.

6. D.W.J. Corcoran, Pattern Recognition, Baltimore, 1971, p. 55.

7. Agnes Martin, quoted by Ann Wilson. “Linear Webs,” Art and Artists. London. October, 1966, p. 48.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. F.H. Gombrich, “Visual Metaphors of Value in Art,” Meditations on a Hobby Horse, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1961, pp. 12-29.

11. Agnes Marlin, unpublished notes, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Agnes Martin/Ann Wilson, “The Untroubled Mind.” Agnes Martin, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 197 I, p. 19.

17. Ibid,. p. 211.

18. Agnes Martin, “A Personal Statement.” typescript (late ’50s), Betty Parsons Gallery.

19.Agnes Martin, "Statement, transcribed and edited by Lizzie Borden.

20. Martin Wilson. “The Untroubled mind.”

21. Agnes Martin, unpublished notes.

22. Lippard, Grids.