New York

Agnes Martin

PaceWildenstein 22

We don’t go to an Agnes Martin exhibition expecting surprise—although good art is always surprising, a source of stimulation rather than the placidity into which memory can sometimes flatten our recollection of work so apparently self—consistent as Martin’s. Eschewing dramatic changes in her approach to painting as much as dramatic conflict within any particular work, Martin depends for her surprises on the degree to which the effects of her paintings can vary within severe limits. On these grounds this was one of her finest exhibitions in some time. The work was even more concentrated and alert to its own vibrations than usual. As before, the paintings consist of horizontal bands, mostly rather broad, of very thin washes in two or three pale colors (in this case, empyreal blues, clayey oranges, pinks, and yellows—the sort of “Southwestern” palette that might be irritatingly decorative in others’ hands). Showing, to varying degrees, the gently rhythmic traces of the artist’s brush, these bands are separated by graphite lines that do not quite reach the edges of the five-foot-square canvases. These lines do not demarcate strict boundaries; the colors at times seep across their limits slightly. At the right and left edges, where the lines peter out and different colors meet, we are surprised to notice that they merge almost imperceptibly, no matter how distinct they remain. As a result, the immense clarity of image in each painting is framed, as it were, by a fine nimbus of indistinguishability, a poignant blur or loss of focus.

About half the paintings maintain a top-to-bottom symmetry in their distribution of colors, giving closure to the composition, while the rest stack repeated two- or three-stripe modules to create open compositions. The latter tend to maintain a residual naturalism in their evocation of a dichotomy between earth and sky. Untitled #14 and Untitled #8 (all works 1996) were hung side by side almost as a lesson in how such openness and closure work, since both alternate stripes of blue and pink. The closure of Untitled #8, along with the somewhat greater width of each stripe, gives it a distinctly heavier feeling than Untitled #14, even though a quick scan would hardly have distinguished the two. In another pairing, Untitled fro and Untitled #2 (which were hung on opposite walls facing each other), we could see how much difference can be generated even between closed compositions using the same colors. In Untitled #2 a blue/yellow alternation is closed by yellow, in Untitled #10 by blue. The difference here is that in Untitled #Io the blue tends to advance, while in Untitled #2, the yellow does—although in both cases these effects of advancement and recession are balanced by Martin’s quiet insistence on the surface itself; this countervailing tendency toward unity gives the paintings their tautness. This tautening through hidden contradiction in the characteristics of color works in another way in Martin’s paintings as well: through the “temperature” of the colors. Just as there are heavier and lighter paintings, or more overt and more elusive ones, there are cooler and warmer canvases; but Martin’s cool colors are always inhabited by a hidden warmth, and the warmth in her paintings always preserves an inner coolness. Amid the austere sensuality of these paintings, nothing is quite what it seems.

Barry Schwabsky