New York

Agnes Martin

The Pace Gallery | 508 W 25th Street

Reductive abstractionists often back themselves into a corner with color. When structural variation is reduced from the start, or after repetition grows weary, there isn’t much more left to work with. In her last show, Agnes Martin flirted with color—pale orange and pink, and pale blue. It was a kind of naive representation of atmospheric, “poetic” color, and it was obvious that she had no feeling for, no idea about, color. After all those years of repression, it was probably too much for Martin to break out with some convincing or genuine account of color. It was nevertheless an interesting try because I think I understood the attempt. The foray into color was short. The thing about Martin—as we learn from the new show—is that she’s devilishly smart concerning her own deficiencies; she retreats from failures as speedily as she repeats her successes.

The new paintings are thus familiar enough: square canvases with lightly pencilled grids, this time with misty gray backgrounds. There is one very good one, Untitled No. 5, which has enough breathing spaces in it to forget that damn grid. The spaces are slightly vertical, open, fading out at the edges. The painting does not remind you of a landscape, at least not in a banal way. If Martin’s paintings up to now have been mappings of space without specific location, there is something in No. 5 which releases it from the conventions of a strictly Cartesian space. I felt as if I were not only looking at something, but through it too; the grid wasn’t obstructing the view. (No. 5 also comes perilously close to imitating a number of O’Keeffe paintings, especially the Patio Doors, which ironically happen to be pink and pale blue.)

The other paintings are all midway between being dense and open, tight and loose, and look compromised, mediocre. What is left is the “new” background, with the accent on texture. The surfaces appear to be thickly brushed gesso applied horizontally from edge to edge. A thinned-out gray paint is applied over this. The gray soaks into the gesso irregularly, depending on the gesso’s thickness in any one place. In the “valleys” of the porous gesso, the paint is less absorbed, and darker gray streaks appear. This surface takes on all kinds of distracting (unintentional) associations: weathered boat hulls, dirty animal bones, cloudy skies, pearly sea shells, stucco apartments.

It is at once too easy and too difficult to read such unnerving associations into Martin’s paintings. Too easy because Martin’s stated intentions involve a transcendent religiosity with a sincere but empty concoction of the infinite, nonmateriality, oneness and enlightenment. One then takes a certain relish in pointing out that one canvas looks exactly like dirty music manuscript paper (complete with five-lined staves). The difficulty is that I do my best to see the work in its best light, as simple painting. But then again, although the paintings may be a distillation of transcendent experience and a confrontation with perfect oneness, I don’t think Martin is appealing to her audience this time, but talking to herself. She isn’t acquainting me with her experience, and the spacey explanations are reduced to trivial jargon. Even Malevich couldn’t sustain a confrontation with these awesome issues for more than four or five years. Perhaps I’m wrong and just don’t get it. Martin once dodged a question concerning the apparent contradiction between her disregard and contempt for material reality and her use of real materials (canvas, paint, stretchers) by staring blankly and saying “You and your generation are too materialistic.”

Jeff Perrone