New York

Agnes Martin

The Pace Gallery | 508 W 25th Street

Agnes Martin left here in 1967 and moved back to New Mexico. She felt that an artist could survive only ten years in New York. At that point, she also stopped painting, and both events tended over the next few years to make her something of a legend. Her work was visible and widely admired. Elkon continued to show pre-1967 paintings and drawings, and in 1973 she had a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Later that same year she exhibited a portfolio of 30 lithographs, On a Clear Day, her first new work since 1967, at The Museum of Modern Art.

At the time of the ICA exhibition, Martin traveled back here, giving a lecture at Cooper Union and again in Philadelphia. I remember the speech, but mostly I remember the quality of Martin’s presence. Her voice quivered with nervousness and conviction, and she seemed to look through the audience to a fixed point beyond it. She spoke with the clarity of someone who had been through a crisis in her art and her life, and found that the other side of this crisis was only an edge. The experience of hearing her speak was intensely moving—but later it seemed somewhat offensive; Martin had a combination of excruciating humility and invincible arrogance, difficult to reconcile.

Martin’s work possesses an attenuated clarity; she had one note in her repertoire and it was a faint high C. It came to a halt, to a brink, in 1967, almost as if there was simply nothing left to do—as if her kind of clarity did not sustain extension. But then, doing nothing is a particularly important activity for Martin. Her work, like her words, seems to result from intense motionless concentration, from thought rather than the activity of making art. She seems to concentrate to the point of understanding exactly what kind of mark, or unit, she wants to repeat and, choosing it, proceeds to cover the designated paper or canvas. Martin has written “I would like my work to be recognized as being in the classic tradition . . . as representing the Ideal in the mind.” Her art seems to emanate from a timeless instant in her mind, but to be done deliberately with no option for reworking, given the thinness of her surfaces and the delicacy of her materials. Martin’s emotional involvement with materials is nominal and pragmatic like Stella’s or Ryman’s: a given area is to be covered a certain way. Nonetheless, the experience of her work, as with Marden’s or Rothko’s or other artists deeply involved with the process of forming a surface, is prolonged, slow and perceptual, a revelatory experience in time. These three qualities, Martin’s Ideal, her workmanlike treatment of surface, and the final prolonged attention that the work requires, were epitomized in the delicate pencil grids on canvas that were her last paintings in 1967. The lithographs, On a Clear Day, seemed, as Lizzie Borden suggested in her article on Martin’s early work (Artforum, April, 1973) a final step toward a perfect, impersonal surface and the elimination of all gestural incident. In them Martin varied a grid within a 9"-square format in what became an exercise in scale.

Martin is now with Pace and showing nine new paintings, the first since 1967. I saw the show quickly on opening day and was disappointed. Returning a second, longer time, I was knocked out. Like the lithographs, this new work forms something of a series dealing with the permutations of one set of facts, this time alternating bands of pale ochre and pale blue (acrylic watered down to the point of looking like watercolor or colored pencil). The bands are vertical in some paintings, horizontal in others and range from about 1 1/2“ to 18” in width (this last being not so much alternating bands as simply a tri-sected square). All the paintings are 6’ x 6’. As paintings, they expand and contract space, surface, and color. The color varies tremendously within this narrow range; the ochre for example, going pinker in some paintings, oranger in others. Sometimes the wider bands seem to have diluted and spread out the color, while in others the increased width seems to make the color more intense. Similarly the space fluctuates and the bands seem closer in some paintings, more removed in others and again these fluctuations are not predicated on the width of the bands.

The work has lost some of its idealist attenuation, even some of its looseness, but in the attempt to be more plastic and robust. It is now more confident and more fallible and quite capable of extension. Martin seems to have returned from the brink and to be ready to become a regular living artist again. I think it beats being a legend.

Roberta Smith