TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1987

“GREY GEESE DESCENDING”: THE ART OF AGNES MARTIN

AGNES MARTIN'S CHARACTERISTIC ART began to appear at a moment when the tradition of the abstract sublime, while still alive in the canvases of Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and others, was on the verge of giving way to Minimalism. Her works since then are almost always square—the paintings typically 6 feet by 6, the drawings typically 9 inches by 9. In her art of the period 1960–67 most of the works are made up of lines and grids, but one can find examples of slightly different formats—triangles or circles floating in rows and columns parallel to the edges of the support. Sometimes the rectangles of the grid aren’t empty, for example they may contain a dot made by the head of a nail that has been driven through the surface, but usually the rectangles coalescing into an allover grid are empty, like graph paper before anything has been drawn on it. In the early ’60s the grounds on which the grids were drawn could be colored; from 1964 to 1967 they were off-white. Again, in the early ’60s the grids often had blank borders around them; toward 1967 they began to extend out to the edges. The lines are drawn now in pencil, now in black or colored ink, watercolor, or oil or acrylic paint. Sometimes they are sharp and clear, sometimes they skim the surface of the support, skipping from height to height; sometimes they are broken. In many cases the gridwork tends to disappear as one backs away from the picture, leaving the impression of a hovering ground or a subtly activated field.

Beginning in 1967, at the climax of a period of masterful output, Martin basically stopped making art for a period that ultimately lasted six years. Because of their moment in art history, the works that preceded this pause were inevitably received as belonging to Minimalist art, and were compared to and exhibited with the works of other artists who had been termed Minimalists. This association was in fact somewhat insensitive to what is going on in Martin’s work. (She is not the only artist whose work was too quickly categorized in the rush to label the abstract art of the early ’60s.) Martin was born in 1912, the same year in which Jackson Pollock was born, a year before Ad Reinhardt was born, seven years after the birth of Newman and a few years before that of Robert Motherwell. She is, in other words, a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionist generation rather than of the “Minimalist generation” that came after. Her allover compositions are a development of Pollock’s; she might be described as having redirected Pollock’s mazes of lines into grids. Mark Tobey’s overall distributions of serial elements are also pertinent. The extreme reductiveness of Martin’s images relates to the directions that Newman, Reinhardt, and others pursued, as does her esthetic vocabulary, her use of a hard edge and a geometric format, and her evolution to an almost complete exclusion of nonrectilinear elements. And her dependence on an “image” or format repeated over and over again echoes the works of Rothko, Newman, Clyfford Still, Motherwell, and others.

One cannot be overconfident with any definition of Minimalism, since there are so many contradictions within it, but one can say that while Minimalism developed partly out of Abstract Expressionism—Reinhardt actually called his later work “minimal”—it rejected the Abstract Expressionist emphasis on touch, subjectivity, and romantic notions of selfhood. Formally, Martin’s work exhibits many of the same Abstract Expressionist elements that passed into Minimalism—overall composition, repetition, hard edge, and so on—but it emphasizes touch, and, above all, it is saturated with the expression of feeling and emotion that the Minimalists formally abjured. The comparison of Martin’s art to Minimalism was rooted in a certain similarity of look, but look alone is an insufficient criterion for such judgments. It is true that the grid is a major theme in both Minimalism and Martin’s work, but the grid has played more than one role in art history.

In graph paper, a grid of squares occupies a rectangular field; Martin usually uses a grid of rectangles on a square field. The rectangle, as she herself has suggested,1 drains out the stabilizing or rigidifying power of the square, introducing comparatively unstable and flowing elements into it. This interplay between the fixed and the changing is the underlying tension that pervades and unifies her work in its ideas, as the grid patterns and lines unify it optically. Untitled, 1960,2 contains five rows and ten columns of elements, and breaks down to the simple ratio 1:2. Words, 1961, has the same ratio, combining elements in relations between four and eight. Blue Flower, 1962, contains 33 rows and 33 columns of elements. Pale Grey, 1966, contains 66 rows of elements and 44 columns of them, while Untitled, 1966,3 exactly reverses this, containing 66 columns and 44 rows; both these works have the ratio 2:3, which appears in other works as well, such as Untitled, 1967.4 Whispering, 1963, has 15 columns and 20 rows of elements, incorporating the ratio 3:4. This ratio is also found in Untitled, 1961,5 but in reverse—44 down and 33 across. When asked about decisions having to do with how many elements would be included in a given work, Martin answers that her interest is more in scale, in an architectural sense, than in arithmetic. Yet the works tend to cluster around the simple ratios 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4, which have long been viewed as creative and dynamic. Experimenting with divisions of stretched string, Pythagoras found that in music they make up the three so-called “perfect” intervals; he and his followers defined the harmony of the spheres through such ratios. Martin’s arrival at numbers like 33 and 66 recalls other architectonic structurings, such as that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, each of the three parts of which has 33 cantos, with an extra one added to make 100, the number of totality.

Various factors, including the loss of her loft when the building was torn down, caused Martin to leave the New York art world in 1967. The six-year space before she started making art again cannot be referred to as a gap or silence, since it was in these years that Martin began to write a series of personal notebook reflections and lecture notes, some of which would ultimately be published, in her own handwriting, in catalogues of her exhibitions. A collection of them is now in the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, in a public archive, to be consulted by students of Martin’s work. They are dated from 1972 to 1976, and thus accompanied the artist’s transition back into making art, which began in 1973, with a series of prints, followed by the return to painting in 1974. Whether an artist’s writings, especially when they are confined to one specific period, should be taken as the basis for a reading of his or her work is a complex question, and it unfolds into a myriad of issues—including the fact that a piece of prose or poetry is susceptible to as many varying interpretations as is a work of visual art. Without denying the viability of other possible avenues of approach, however, I’d like to focus here on Martin’s words, and particularly on an atmosphere I find in them that reminds me of Taoist discourse. Though Martin emphasizes in conversation that Taoist writings are only one of many interests she enjoys, she is certainly familiar with them. While to treat her works as a focused and intentional expression of Taoist thought would be incorrect, and would close off the full range of emotional and intellectual expression they offer, it nevertheless seems to me that the Tao offers a valuable point of entry to their mood.

Martin’s notes for “On the Perfection Underlying Life,” a lecture she delivered at the University of Pennsylvania in 1973, are a good place to begin. The very idea of “perfection” could suggest attitudes that some might describe as unrealistic or mystical, and since Martin is neither, she must mean something else. Her denials of religion and mysticism coexist with frequent allusions to a special state of life. “These paintings,” she has written, “are about freedom from the cares of this world/from worldliness/not religion. You don’t have to be religious to have inspirations.”6 Her remarks about the possibilities of art often parallel those of her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Newman, for example, wrote that art should evoke a “memory of the emotion of an experienced moment of total reality.”7 Martin has similarly written, “The function of art work is. . . the renewal of memories of moments of perfection.”8 Her approach to the grid has parallels to Newman’s zips, which have themselves been connected with the cabalistic term Tsimtsum—a kind of emptiness understood as the source of creativity.9 The square format of Martin’s works undercuts both the literal suggestion of landscape that the horizontal rectangle brings with it and the suggestion of the figure borne by the vertical rectangle.

In art practice the grid has had a common function in the transferral of images from one scale or place to another; the original image is gridded, and a grid of the same number of elements, but not usually the same size, is drawn onto the receiving surface. Finally each square or rectangle of the gridded original is transferred separately to the corresponding space of the new grid. The gridded surface, then, functions as a kind of ontological ground, a membrane from which forms emerge into the light, a threshold where energy passes from formlessness to form. So what is a grid standing empty, like graph paper on which nothing has yet been drawn?

In the Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Tao (which has been variously dated between the sixth and the third centuries B.C.), attributed to the philosopher Lao Tzu, there is a passage about art. If the people, Lao Tzu says, “find life too plain and unadorned, / Then let them have accessories; / Give them Simplicity to look at, the Uncarved Block to hold.”10 In Taoist terminology the “Uncarved Block” is a state of potential being that coexists with the many concrete actualizations of being. It contains, in its uncarved state, countless potential forms, its infinity being compromised and constricted by any particular carving of it into actuality.11 In this context we might reconsider Martin’s grid. It is like the block from which no particular form has yet been carved. It contains within its potentiality all possible forms. It waits. Activated and tingling, the grid is the place of infinite creativity, the ground to which we must return for “the renewal of memories of moments of perfection” When Martin’s grids disappear as one backs away from the painting, they disappear, as it were, into the otherwise formless ground, where they reside always in a kind of latency, giving the ground an appearance of floating vibrancy, of light-filled potentiality, of invisible but active force. Thus the grids are intensifications of the meaning that the ground itself has in art. They show the ground hyperactivated for the appearance of the figure, the image, yet still empty, suspended at the moment of hyperactivation just before forms appear, and before infinity is compromised.

At the heart of Martin’s work is the dichotomy between an ordered system and a particular event within that system—the personal feeling of the lines, which proceed over the surface with a heartbreaking delicacy of touch. Martin has expressed this dichotomy through a discussion of the difference between unchanging and changing things. Changing things Martin calls the “exhaustibles,” unchanging things the “inexhaustibles.”12 This dichotomy has occupied a lot of 20th-century art, but most relevant here is the tradition of the abstract sublime, with its constant shifting back and forth between ontological and epistemological terms, between pure being and pure consciousness, from Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square, ca. 1915, to Yves Klein’s blue monochromes, to Pollock’s The Deep, 1953.

In the 14 years since 1973 Martin has regularly exhibited new work that shows a strong continuity with her work of the earlier period. “I’ve always painted the same theme,” she says.13 These works maintain the size and shape of the earlier ones—paintings mostly 6 feet square, drawings and watercolors usually 9 inches by 9. But the reductiveness of the grids has often undergone further reduction. The vertical lines of the grid have disappeared from many paintings, leaving a series of horizontal stripes; from a few the horizontal elements have disappeared, leaving vertical stripes. At the same time color has both changed and remained the same. Sometimes, as in many of the works of 1964–67, there is no color, but only the most delicate of pencil lines dividing an off-white ground. Elsewhere the coloring of the pre-1964 works returns, and there are also works with color both more subtle and more powerful. Martin here is the ultimate colorist of the highly tinted, or whitened, hue—peaches of different intensities, blues of different intensities, yellows.

In Martin’s later work the horizontal line often triumphs within the square format. She chooses to discuss it all in terms of feelings and emotions, “the subtlest feelings that everyone has. . . feelings that people are hardly aware of having,”14 to quote the artist. When told by a viewer once that no geese are to be seen in a work of 1985 entitled Grey Geese Descending, she replied, “I painted the emotions we have when we feel gray geese descending.” “Descent” implies a downward flow from the heights to the depths. And the triumph of the horizontal in the later work might be seen as the triumph of receptiveness over assertiveness. The more recent paintings, by virtue of the reduction of the lines, and the avoidance of the clash or tension of the horizontals and verticals, and also through their complementary addition of an extremely sensitive and powerful colorism, have become less available to an overlay of discourse, more out there simply as a stimulus to feelings, more sensual and optical. In a statement of 1972, near the end of her six-year layoff, Martin wrote, “My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent.”15

The new work, in fact, is even more abstracted from reference. In a text of 1976, Martin wrote about abstraction—or about what she calls the “abstract response,” which is “the response that we make in our minds free from our concrete environment. . . . We know that it is infinite, dimensionless, without form and void. But it is not nothing because when we give our minds to it we are blissfully aware.”16 Her shift from the grid works to the softly glowing stripe works is a shift that takes one even closer to this place. These paintings, even more than the grid paintings, with their inevitably somewhat hard rigor, are instruments to induce awareness of subtle feelings, to point one lightly toward them. In this respect her works relate to many tantric paintings, which also use veillike grids or stacks of horizontal parallel lines as meditation objects to focus the mind on itself.

“I would like my work,” Martin writes, “to be recognized as being in the classic tradition. . . . Classical art can not possibly be eclectic.”17 Martin’s writings contain several indications of what she means by “classical.” In one place, an image of a Sung-dynasty vessel is accompanied by the words “really cool,” “classic,” “unearthy.”18 Another page compares two Tang-dynasty vases, with the notation, “The pot on the right because of its suggestion of a nature form is not as classical as the one on the left. It is held down to earth.”19 Elsewhere Martin appreciates Chinese ceramists on the ground that, looking at their work, one can see all the elements they rejected, their continual awareness, that is, of emptiness as the ground of form.20 In a key inclusion in her notebooks she refers to Buddhist terminology that describes reality as made up of three levels: the Nirmanakaya, the changing everyday world; the Dharmakaya, the unchanging absolute; and the so-called “transformation” realm, Sambhogakaya, which lies between them. It is in this middle realm, where change and the unchanging somehow merge, that Martin locates the “classic.”21 In this intermediate realm between the absolute and the relative, one cannot get away from either the universal or the particular, either the idea of perfection or everyday reality. “I hope I have made it clear,” writes Martin,“that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.”22 And she says, “If any perfection is indicated in the work it is recognized by the artist as truly miraculous.”23 Yet classical art “is like a memory of perfection.”24 And as Martin’s art suggests, in order to attain to the art of the memory of perfection we must return from figure to ground, from rigid differentiation to open potentiality. We must go back, as Lao Tzu puts it, into the Uncarved Block, or, as Martin writes, to that most rewarding state when “our most tenacious prejudices are overcome. Our most tightly gripped resistances come under the knife.”25 All judgments, all “knowledge,” must be abandoned:

You may as well give up judging your actions. If it is the unconditioned life that you want you do not know what you should do or what you should have done. We will just have to let everything go. Everything we know and everything everyone else knows is conditioned.26

And, being conditioned, it must be let go. This relates to what Martin means by her reference to “unearthy,” or by “freedom from the cares of this world.” We must, in other words, empty our grids. In this view the grid, when full of images or ideas, comes to signify a manipulative way to see life, a system of formulas and categories that order experience artificially. The empty grid signifies freedom, no “resistance or notions,” no “thinking, planning, scheming.”27 In short, all the disquieting overtones of the psychic drama take their leave. During moments of such awareness we have intimations of the state of “free and easy wandering” described by Chuang Tzu.28 (Martin quotes this phrase in her notebooks.29) We “quietly come, quietly go.”30

Martin’s art expresses by its reductiveness the idea of loss of habit, and by its quietness and unassumingness the quality of humility that is the opposite of what she calls “Pride the Dragon.” Her work is a message about the “free and easy” path that a suitably sensitive viewer recognizes in the pictures, thereby increasing his or her own storehouse of sensitivity. A poem by Martin could be quoted as a closing description of her work:31

I can see humility
Delicate and white
It is satisfying
Just by itself. . .

Humility, the beautiful daughter
She cannot do either right or wrong
She does not do anything
All of her ways are empty
Infinitely light and delicate
She treads an even path.
Sweet, smiling, uninterrupted, free.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at Rice University, Houston. His novel North of Yesterday will be published this summer by McPherson & Co., New Paltz, New York.

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NOTES

1. Quoted in Lawrence Alloway, “Agnes Martin,” Agnes Martin, Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1979, exhibition catalogue, p. 9.

2. Identifiable as cat. no. 3 in Agnes Martin, Munich: Kunstraum, 1973, exhibition catalogue.

3. Identifiable as cat. no. 17 in ibid.

4. Identifiable as cat. no. 19 in ibid.

5. Identifiable as cat. no. 4 in ibid.

6. Agnes Martin, “The Untroubled Mind,” Agnes Martin (Philadelphia), p. 20.

7. Quoted in Thomas Hess, Barnett Newman, New York: Walker and Company, 1969, p. 37.

8. Martin, notes for “On the Perfection Underlying Life,” a lecture delivered in 1973. The notes are in the archives of the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia. This and all quotations from archive materials are courtesy of the ICA. Some of the notes are published in the Munich and Philadelphia catalogues. The Munich catalogue, incidentally, reprints from the ICA archive a text entitled “A Personal Statement,” issued by the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1958 and attributed to Martin; Martin, however, says that she did not write it and that it does not express her point of view.

9. See Hess, Barnett Newman, New York: Museum of Modem Art, 1971, exhibition catalogue, p. 111 and elsewhere.
10. See Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power, New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1958, p. 166

11. See ibid., pp. 178 and 183.

12. In an interview of Martin by Kate Horsfield, in “On Art and Artists: Agnes Martin,”
Profile 1 no. 2. Chicago: Video Data Bank/School of the Art Institute of Chicago, March 1981.

13. From a telephone conversation with the author, April 1987.

14. Ibid.

15. Martin, “The Still and Silent in Art,” note dated 1972 in the ICA archives.

16. Martin, notes for “What Is Real,” a lecture delivered in 1976. The notes are in the ICA archives.

17. Martin, untitled notes dated 1972 in the ICA archives.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Martin, “What Is Real.”

21. Martin, untitled notes dated 1972 in the ICA archives.
22. Ibid.

23. Martin, “On the Perfection Underlying Life.”

24. Martin, untitled notes dated 1972 in the ICA archives.

25. Martin, “On the Perfection Underlying Life.”

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans. Burton Watson, New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1968, chapter 1.

29. Martin, “On the Perfection Underlying Life.”

30. Martin, untitled notes dated 1972 in ICA archives.

31. Ibid.