Los Angeles

Agnes Martin

Nicholas Wilder Gallery

Agnes Martin’s six recent paintings at Nicholas Wilder are all 72 x 72”. It is not easy to discern a hierarchy of importance among them on any grounds but the most purely subjective ones. Each functions precisely, in its own terms, exactly as one feels it must. The very existence of paintings by Martin in a public place implies that they are already selections from, or completions of, an unknown number of experimental works leading to their final states. Not only does she in fact destroy many works, but the works present have an almost incredible air in themselves of being culminations. Confronted with these canvases, one simply does not argue intent, or resolution, or lack of it.

There are several reasons why these paintings resist purposive speculation. First, they are so refined and so infinitely subtle—every pencilled line, every interval of white or nuance of grey is so carefully controlled—that it is difficult to weigh the effects of parts on the whole with any clarity. There is no question of presuming to reenact the structuring process vicariously, much less to improve upon it. But this is not because they are elaborate or complex. Martin uses line in repeated symmetrical patterns. She restricts herself radically in every formal direction, which enables her in a particular sense to transcend problems of tension, if tension in painting means weighted interrelations of heterogeneous figurations on a picture surface. This is especially true of the paintings which are striated horizontally in schematic patterns based upon alternating single, double or four-line combinations. Moreover, there is virtually no adequate precedent or comparison by which one can measure these works. They are simultaneously conventional and unpretentious technically (Martin draws with graphite pencil on painted canvas), and yet so original and self-involved that they undermine the relevance of historical or stylistic analogy. It is difficult to imagine any art which would be freer of conceit or exposition.

In all their asceticism, Martin’s paintings are loaded with syntactical, textural and chromatic phenomena. For instance, in Summer Sky (a horizontal stripe painting organized in groups of four evenly spaced lines, divided by a single line spaced more widely) a few drops of black paint are mixed into the white. As a result, the entire surface is shot through with vague shadows visible only from some distance, and even then the greys are so muted that one sees them only fleetingly. Nevertheless the field is profoundly enriched. In The Garden, the lines are placed at relatively narrow intervals, about three-quarters and one-eighth inch apart. The white paint is applied in even horizontal strokes, quite thickly, so that the texture of the canvas beneath is nearly disguised. By contrast, the brush strokes in Happy Valley are irregular and the fabric weave comes through more strongly. Though this is evident only on close scrutiny, it is extremely important for the total effect of the work. This painting is slightly shiny, and the paint appears to be applied more thickly. This was achieved partly by applying a transparent wash over the whole surface, including the pencilled lines. But again it is a matter of minute degree; all the works are covered with a transparent wash, but only here is it heavy enough to be obvious.

Martin draws with a draftsman’s pencil and simple measuring tools, a T-square or yardstick. The quality of the line is soft and barely irregular. The lines vary in thickness and value, and in some places one sees the overlapping of two pencilled strokes. However, the delineation in these works is broader generally and less hesitant than in her earliest grey and white line paintings such as Leaf in the Wind of 1963.

If there is one work among these which is less successful than the rest, it is The Cliff. Here the canvas is divided into a rectangular grid, in the manner of Martin’s previous style. Each rectangular section is filled with densely spaced vertical lines. From an oblique angle, the work is seen as a softly modulated allover grey surface.

Jane Livingston