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PRINT February 2005

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Lynne Cooke on Agnes Martin

“SCARY” WAS THE WORD that Agnes Martin used to describe the small group of “black” paintings that we were surveying at PaceWildenstein gallery in New York one afternoon last May. These five anomalous canvases constituted about half the works in her exhibition “Homage to Life,” which would become, with her death on December 20, 2004, the last show she made. Dominated by viscous black acrylic; one or two simple geometric forms; and an impastoed, at times gestural, facture, these canvases from 2002–2003 seemed a radical departure from her practice over the previous four decades. Deemed too foreboding or disturbing, they were pursued no further, and she returned instead to her signature manner premised in what she identified as serenity, pleasure, beauty, and innocence. In her life as in her art, Martin knew well both ends of the emotional/spiritual spectrum, and she resolutely sought to affirm one extreme while never fully denying the existence of the other. Totally unanticipated at this late stage in her career, these new works were not, however, unprecedented, as I quickly realized. Their precursors could be found among the earliest works Martin executed when, already in her late forties, she relocated from New Mexico to New York in 1957. In later years she repudiated—and even destroyed—many of her works from that formative period, circa 1957–60, before she adopted the grid as her determining structural device.

After reviewing “Homage to Life,” Martin was planning the next day to see “going forward into unknown territory,” an exhibition that I curated at Dia:Beacon, the first in an ongoing series of presentations devoted to key periods in her career. On view until April 18, 2005, the show concentrates on the decade in which Martin lived and worked in Manhattan, from 1957 to 1967, and I was apprehensive about her reaction to the first room, which contains those contentious formative works, many of which she had not seen in over fifty years. But as that memorable afternoon at Pace wore on, I gradually became more intrigued than anxious. What, I wondered, had motivated her, at the age of ninety, to return to issues she had once so resolutely rejected?

Even though she always described the genesis and resolution of a particular painting in terms of inspiration followed by a process of intuitive decision making, in fact, Martin consistently worked within narrow, self-imposed confines. Moreover, as evidenced in the various interviews she gave from the mid-1970s onward, and confirmed in related witness accounts, she tended to make the key decisions in her career, as in her life, with a resolute deliberation. She moved from New Mexico to Manhattan because the gallerist Betty Parsons had made residency in New York a condition for adding Martin to her stable. A decade later, just as her work was gaining widespread critical renown, Martin precipitously quit the city, instructing that her paints, brushes, and canvases be given away to younger, less-fortunate artists. Seven years passed before she resumed painting. During that period she returned to New Mexico, built herself a simple house on a relatively isolated site, and, as at other critical points in her life, found it necessary to sever friendships in the interests of her work. Thereafter, in carefully monitored seclusion, she concentrated intently on her art, regularly exhibiting new works in New York over the next three decades.

While never a recluse, Martin kept the art world at arm’s length. Whenever she did agree to talk in public, observers commented on her nervousness or apprehensiveness, a manifestation of her life-long shyness. These events must have assumed the character of trials if not ordeals, but she subjected herself to them as an integral part of being a professional artist. Whether spoken or written, her highly crafted statements were largely repeated or rephrased from one occasion to the next. Disdaining anecdote and colloquialism in favor of an uplifting, evangelical tone, and interweaving advice and encouragement, she addressed her statements sometimes explicitly, always implicitly, to students and aspiring artists. In their fusion of the ethical and spiritual with the aesthetic, these frequently hortatory, poetic pronouncements reflected her close study of the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila. Immersion in the sixteenth-century visionary’s incantatory writings seems to have offered Martin a model and framework through which she then absorbed the speculations of Taoist, Buddhist, and other metaphysicians. Recently, when her health began to fail, she declared that on her death she wanted no memorial service and no grave marker, a directive fully in keeping with her long-standing belief in the exemplary character of the role and identity of the contemporary artist.

Despite a “late” start, which meant that her work matured at the beginning of the ’60s along with hard-edge abstraction and Minimalism, Martin associated herself with her own generation, with the Abstract Expressionists whom she greatly revered. Rothko, in particular, influenced her work in the later ’50s. Newman, who installed her shows at the Parsons Gallery as he did most others there, became a close friend and supporter. And so did Reinhardt, with whom she arguably had the greatest affinity. Her resolute conviction that “my paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything—no forms” vividly recalls the equally intransigent negations of the “Black Monk.” Circumstance, however, dictated that her works debuted with those of artists born almost two decades later, including the coterie of painters on Coenties Slip alongside whom she lived and worked during her years in Manhattan: Jack Youngerman, Robert Indiana, Lenore Tawney, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Yet critically, her work tended to be linked with the emergent Minimalists, a milieu that she accepted though ultimately did not embrace. Few then, or since, have thought to contextualize her ’60s paintings with concurrent efforts by Robert Irwin, Jo Baer, Bridget Riley, and perhaps Josef Albers, as well as Reinhardt, all of whom investigated a phenomenologically grounded perception through the construction of a de-differentiated spatial field premised on the grid.

For the most part, however, Martin has been considered as a loner, her art as her life a model of the Emersonian doctrine of self-reliance which she had been compelled to adopt at a precociously early age. In most photographs, she is portrayed in isolation, appearing either apprehensive or stoic and divested of all traces of her sense of humor, which could be both tart and affectionate. In one of the few exceptions—Hans Namuth’s redolent 1957 rooftop photograph at Coenties Slip—she is portrayed as an elder among neophytes, as aloof as they are cool. The only one not dressed in the customary black, she is placed as if on one end of a seesaw opposite another evasive maverick, the radiant actress Delphine Seyrig. Like Seyrig’s work, Martin’s was always enthusiastically received but rarely clearly understood. Among the encomiums that greeted her first retrospective in 1973 were paeans from the archconservative New York Times critic Hilton Kramer, who, three years later, proclaimed the new works she presented after a seven-year hiatus as “almost a form of prayer.” Such high-flown tributes extended the litany of airy interpretations that had accompanied her mature work from its inception. Responding to such titles as Flower in the Wind, 1963, On a Clear Day, 1973, and Happy Valley, 1967, critics initially sought to connect the febrile space and evanescent light that suffuses her subtly elusive abstractions with landscape experiences, whether grounded in the deserts of the American Southwest where she spent the greater part of her life, or in the vast prairies of southern Canada where she was born and passed a formative if brief segment of her childhood. Recent studies, by contrast, have been couched in terms of the abstract sublime. Yet with the exception of a major essay by Rosalind Krauss published in the catalogue to a 1992 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the most comprehensive presentation of Martin’s work to date, there is virtually no significant writing on her from any theoretical perspective.

The disquiet Martin experienced from the anomalous group of black paintings we studied at Pace last spring convinced her to return to a mode based on the grid, the principal element in her economical vocabulary. “When I first made a grid,” she recalled of the paintings she executed on the cusp of 1960, “I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.” Although Martin here clearly attests to the fact that the grid enabled her “vision,” few writers have taken her literally. Unwilling to consider that she is describing what Krauss incisively calls an “attempt to grasp the logical conditions of vision,” most, like Kramer, have conflated “vision” with the “visionary.” But rather than reading her work as concerned with the spiritual, it is possible to take Martin at her word and to see in her fascination with Taoist and Buddhist writings what Anna Chave has astutely termed “an idea of art as a mode of developing awareness or heightening perception.” For notwithstanding Martin’s desire to evoke such states as innocence and love, hers is unquestionably an “objectivist opticality”: Her vision is grounded not in subjective fantasies but in a dispassionate seeing, in the experiential satisfactions of the eye. For Martin, as for Reinhardt or Irwin or Riley, the pleasures of an uncensored visual innocence could lie in a kind of seeing that probes, stretches, tunes, discriminates, and even revels in the subtleties and refinements of its own operations. Such an untrammeled seeing, a seeing divested of reference in favor of an absorption in its own material and pictorial conditions, was best forged with the greatest of restraints and exercised within the most pared of vocabularies. Such an art could no more tolerate figure-ground relationships than it could permit subjective paint handling or the creation of an illusionistic plastic space. In threatening to undermine the finely wrought integrity of the kind of pictorial structure that Martin had honed over years, the black paintings were indeed “scary.”

But what ultimately seems most remarkable about Martin’s unexpected foray into the dark depths opened up by these noirish works, along with Untitled #3, 2003, a subtler, paler sibling, is her desire to return to her self-defined origins as age increasingly made its presence felt. By revisiting the sites of her formative struggles, she once more aligned herself with the Abstract Expressionists, whom she not only considered her peers but whose work remained for her without equal in any period or culture. Two remarkable works ensued. The Sea, 2003, the penultimate painting in this group, is composed of fine lines etched into a dense black surface: They reveal white underpainting in the form of a loose grid, which fuses the potentially indeterminant depths with the picture plane. The final work in this extraordinary venture is Untitled #3: The upper half of its five-foot-square field comprises an off-white ground latticed with vertical lines; the lower half, a pale beige expanse, remains pristine. Whereas The Sea relates quite closely to Starlight, 1962, to my knowledge Untitled #3 has no peer in Martin’s oeuvre. Although obviously rooted in the fundamentals of her maturing vocabulary, it is nonetheless absolutely fresh, breathtakingly new. Offering an unprecedented perspective rather than attempting a summation, it comes full circle, reconciling her beginnings with her endings. Few artists have been given the possibility—and fewer still have found the strength and means—to court closure so deliberatively and fearlessly in their practices, not to speak of their lives.

Lynne Cooke has been the curator at Dia Art Foundation since 1991. She also writes and teaches on contemporary art.