New York

Agnes Martin

The Pace Gallery | 508 W 25th Street

Here’s a description of two of Agnes Martin’s recent paintings. One: a canvas 6 feet by 6 feet is covered with approximately 56 horizontal pencil lines, apparently evenly spaced, with a slightly uneven margin to either side; under the lines is a dry-brush application of gesso horizontally applied to match the weave of the bare canvas, whose natural oatmeal color appears wherever the paint doesn‘t. Two: a canvas 6 feet by 6 feet is covered with 17 sets of double lines approximately one-half inch apart; there‘s an uneven margin, a dry-brush application of gesso, and a barely present wash, horizontally applied but dripping vertically and seemingly caught toward the bottom, where a congregation of sponge-like marks cancels out vertical and horizontal. Dramas such as this last constitute the adventure of Martin‘s work. The introduction of an orange wash at one point seems almost violent.

As usual, Martin uses perfectly legible permutative operations to create effects that seem to deny their origins. For example, while the heaviness or lightness of the load of gesso on the brush obviously changes the “color” of the entire painting, making it grayer, browner, whiter, the frequency of the lines can make the gesso background seem lighter or darker when in fact it hasn’t changed at all. Likewise, if the gesso is spaced so as to leave unprimed areas bordering each pencil line, the lines appear to have independently generated their own halos. Martin concentrates on computation and order through the use of the grid so as, paradoxically, to free us from “the calculating mind.” By the calculating mind I take it that she means habit, ‘‘the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit;” according to Samuel Beckett. Habit ordains that “if you put down green-blue and you have always liked pink with green-blue . . . you put it down.” Martin defeats habit, or attempts to, by jumping directly into the jaws of the beast; immersing herself in a rote procedure, she vitiates habit, by definition unconscious, by making it self-conscious.

The oriental view that the perfume of the ineffable will waft up out of the grinding action of repetition is also active in these paintings, and the wavering edges and shimmering, undulating fields are its visible sign. So Martin continues with the post-Minimal aim of breaking up the gestalt, rippling the unity of the field, making perception fugitive. She believes in what she has called ‘‘the underlying perfection of life;” but presents the aspect of regularity rather than the actuality. Her grids are never perfectly square nor her margins perfectly straight, possibly for the same reason an oriental carpet pattern is flawed—to avoid the sin of pride.

Jeanne Silverthorne