New York

Agnes Martin

From the early ’60s to the late ’80s, the grid in Agnes Martin’s work shifts from relative differentiation to relative undifferentiation—to an increasing sense of entropy. Her early grids are constituted by small, obviously handmade marks—confirming the “naturalness” signalled by such titles as Gray Stone II, 1961 and Milk River, 1963—that seem to undermine the axiomative uniformity of the grid, however unassailable it remains. In contrast, the surfaces of the later, untitled grids seem almost inhumanly slick, as though made by a robotic hand. One wonders if the abstract sublime has not turned into tedium vitae.

The grid has all the simplicity and dull-ness of eternity, but Martin initially tried to make it timely, “touching,” and subliminally complicated through texture. She “rearranged” it as much as seemed possible without disintegrating it, experimentally narrowing or broadening the space between the lines (whether horizontal or vertical). It is as though the space were secretly alive however inert it appears. She was trying within her stringent economy of means to make the universal grid—symbol of her monastic way of life—seem very particular and spirited as well as full of unexpected harmonies. In the process she created a perceptual epiphany of its inevitability. It is as though Martin had been trying to render the details unique and unrepeatable, even though the grid as a whole remained identical.

In the later works, the width between the lines, while not completely stabilized, tends to be broad, as though signalling that she has at last found the right proportion—the one that conveys a sense of well-being. But the tactile quality of the work diminishes, however much the surface of certain works, like that of Untitled #6, 1985, has a facilely brushed, sweeping look—somewhat less agitated and nuanced than that of earlier surfaces. Martin seems to finally accept the picture plane: she no longer tries to get under its (and our) skin, to needle her way into the surface as though inscribing the grid onto it, like a tattoo. The mood seems to have changed from insidiously manic to depressive grandiosity, not unlike the difference between summer and winter on the plains of Saskatchewan where she was born.

Martin’s work suggests that the grid is an intellectual defense against instinct (nature), an instinct that early in her career threatened to disrupt it. Later, instinct was brought under control, lending the grid a drier, exhausted look, however lightly libidinous her colors—even when they turned to preashen gray—remained. Then the grid’s meaning as repression, indeed denial, became self-evident. Behind all the supposed spirituality and mysticism that have been attributed to Martin’s Formalist paintings, the development of her increasingly hermetic, ultimately monodic works shows her working through a death wish but unwittingly submitting to it. In the end the desert of the grid unmistakably discloses the sense of desertion that her withdrawn art and life acted out all along.