New York

Agnes Martin

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

If there is such a thing as intellectual beauty, then these magisterial gray paintings do more than exemplify it, they embody it. The works are nominally minimalist, in that they eschew excess. They achieve their effect of subdued grandeur with very little—black pencil lines and bands of gray and white paint, varied in spacing and thickness and laid out on a resolutely flat, figure-size canvas. The works intimate heroic scale rather than bloat to wall size. Their guiding principle is parallelism: however subtly different in surface and size, all the elements of the paintings remain parallel to one another. They themselves are parallels, suggesting that the exhibition as a whole is a meditation on the fundamentality of parallelism, perhaps as a trope for the sense of eternity: parallels imply the timeless and spaceless. Moreover, the formality of parallelism concentrates visual being toward silence: the infinitely together but untouching, the fecundity of repetition but also its schizoid quality. Ineffability tempered by intimacy is the deepest ideal of this kind of lyrical abstraction.

The sensuality of gray is one of the oldest truths of the psyche: it signals primary ambivalence. The gray is not an achievement, it is there to begin with; its perception is the achievement. Gray is ultimate emotional reality; all perception is pressured by it, and tends to it, and breaks down into it. Martin makes its subliminal presence manifest, without destroying our sense of its subliminality. She makes us conscious of the gray, but also of its unfathomability: her abstractions have the look of great wakefulness and great somnambulism. This peculiar simultaneity arises because her gray never truly breaks down into black and white—into conflict of opposites, the basis of all narrative. Conflict is stayed by the principle of parallelism. Martin’s antitheses are charged with the tension of their relationship, but they coexist, in a detached way—the drive to synthesis does not exist. This is why Martin’s gray is a permanent enigma: it is beyond conflict, but not tension.

On the surface, Martin’s parallel lines resemble those used in writing, but they imply the opposite: her lines undermine writing by their tendency to sameness, which implies movement to the edge of the verbal. The best abstract art uses visual language to create an untranslatable vision, suggesting the incommensurability of the visual and the verbal. With a rarely seen persuasiveness that recalls Mark Rothko, Martin realizes the dream of a visual art that cannot be translated into verbal terms, creating work that seems astonishingly absolute, unapproachable, and solitary.

Donald Kuspit