New York

Agnes Martin

Robert Elkon Gallery

If Mangold’s paintings can be described as arriving at abstraction through representation, in an inverse way Agnes Martin’s drawings from 1960 to 1967 can be seen as achieving representation through pure abstraction. Not that I mean to imply that there is any one-to-one relation between Martin’s work and nature. What she suggests is more an idea of nature than a transcription of perceptual reality. In reflections published in Artforum, April, 1973, Martin stated, “In our minds there is an awareness of perfection; when we look with our eyes we see it, and how it functions is mysterious to us and unavailable.” Through their classical simplicity, through the synonymity of the parts with the whole, Martin’s grids hint at this idea of perfection, which informs one’s knowledge of the phenomenal world. That there are evocations of landscape imagery in her work is due to one’s interpretation of a similarity in patterning instead of an actual correspondence of forms. It is interesting in this respect that Martin’s drawings never truly suggest man-made architecture. Her grids exist as a whole, a given. Because their facture is one of weaving rather than building, the structure is interlocking not additive; the units are never separable from the whole. In this way, the holism of the image is reinforced; it is mysteriously complete in itself. Yet Martin’s intimation of a perfect order is not dogmatic. There is no didactic declaration of an absolute. Her work is reticent; the colors muted. The thinness of the paper and its occasional wrinkling under pale washes of color predicate a fragility, an intangibility which prevents any feeling of definiteness. The slight irregularities of the lines heighten this sense of the inaccessibility of pure perfection. Similarly in the one painting on display, Lake, the penciled grid merges with the thin wash of gray acrylic beneath it. While the grid is always seen, at the same time it continually dissolves into the grayness of the whole. It is an order which is present, but never tangible.

That there are an infinitude of possibilities within the limitations of an order is demonstrated by the variety of the drawings exhibited. Although all the works employ a similar square format, no two works have the same evocative impact. In some the grids emphasize the vertical, in others the horizontal; in some the spacing is densely packed, in others more open. Color too is a variable. While Martin’s work is not involved with series, there is nevertheless a cumulative effect to viewing so many drawings together. It is as if one is continually rediscovering sameness through difference. This sameness is contingent upon the completeness of each work within itself, a completeness which signifies an idea of wholeness, of universal order. In the reflections cited above, Martin says “A work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present—at the slightest hint . . . the work is alive.” Martin’s work is very much alive.

––Susan Heinemann