New York

Agnes Martin

Pace Gallery

The reductivist fashion of the 1960s was so powerful that it determined the styles of many artists who, by what one can intuit about their temperaments, might have been expected to be naturally antagonistic to it. The strongest examples of this tension were, perhaps, the strange, banked fires of Agnes Martin and Brice Marden, artists whose appeal was and remains subtly but pervasively against-the-grain, subversive in nuance, feeling, mystique: not the exactness of the grid but the tremulousness of the pencilled line bumping over the tooth of the canvas, and not the monochrome slab but the felt analogy of tender oil/wax medium to sensitive flesh. And, in both, colors that dream of landscape. The abatement of the tension in recent years, with the ebbing of reductivism, has changed nothing in the orientation of either artist, but at least in Martin’s work it might be partly accountable for a newly relaxed, improvisatory air, plus further evidence of a “mystical” bent. Her new watercolors are quite the most exquisitely beautiful work of hers I’ve seen, and the most resonant.

There were 51 watercolors in the show, all 9 inches square within gray linen mats. The ruled pencil and occasional red-ink drawing is strictly horizontal in all except two, but extremely varied as to the number and placement of the lines; there were few repeated designs. The colors, generally pale blues, pinks, salmons, yellows, are similarly varied, by numberless minute differences of saturation and tone. The paper is rag tracing paper, puckered by the water. From a distance, the surface looks soft, like rumpled bedsheet; up close, its hard finish comes as something of a shock. Several things—simplicity, the handmade look, the red ink, the wan intensity of the colors (though not at all the design)—contribute to an evocation of tantric diagrams.

Indeed, like most of Martin’s work these seem inducements to meditation, all the more effective for being intimately small. It has been said that they are inspired by the colors of the Southwest, where Martin makes her home; this seems possible, but of no great moment. The sites to which Martin continually directs us are decidedly of the mind. They open up, as it were, behind one’s eyes, consciousness of a tranquil, melting realm.

Peter Schjeldahl