New York

Agnes Martin

PaceWildenstein 22

It’s rare indeed to see twenty-two works by the late Agnes Martin in the same place at the same time, but a recent show at PaceWildenstein Gallery was also unusual in juxtaposing very early works with works from the last four years of her life. After moving to New York from New Mexico in 1957, Martin began to paint abstractly and rose to prominence. But in 1967, she abruptly put her practice on hold, gave away all her tools and materials, and drove out of town. Her subsequent nomadic hiatus lasted over a year, until, as she told it, she had a vision that compelled her to return to New Mexico, where she found a remote mesa and built herself an adobe structure by hand. Seven years after her departure from New York, she resumed painting and continued without interruption until her death at age ninety-two in 2004.

Like bookends of an exemplary though unusual “life of the painter,” the provocative coupling of early and late canvases raised questions about the development of Martin’s formal means as well as her conceptual intent. Though she became known as a Minimalist, she identified with Abstract Expressionism—the difference, for her, hinging on the work’s emotional and spiritual components. The titles of many of her late paintings are telling: Among those exhibited, Gratitude, Tranquility, Happiness, all 2001, and Homage to Life, 2003, reflect the directness of the artist’s language in her late years. Her outspokenness resulted not from youthful exuberance, but rather from the mature renegotiation of her life and practice.

In her writings, Martin confirmed the importance of love, nature, and a Zen-like philosophy to her work. This show encouraged us to ponder whether this was always the case, or whether the early abstract paintings tell another story. Is there an embedded emotive “feminine” dimension to them that was suppressed by the macho rhetoric of Minimalism? How much can we discover of Martin’s inner life, and its parallels in her art, simply by looking? From her first forays into abstraction to her final works, she constantly recycled certain sets of variables: penciled grids, fields of horizontal lines, simple geometric forms, color washes, and open space. She attributed the initial appearance of the grid to the idea of “innocence”; specifically, to thoughts about the “innocence of grass.” Titles of early abstract paintings abound with references to the landscape—among those exhibited here were Wheat, 1957, The Spring, 1958, and The River, 1965.

The pale yellow and taupe rectilinear shapes in the first of these could have been distilled from memories of the endless level Saskatchewan horizon, as seen from Martin’s father’s fields: She acknowledged the permanent imprint in her work of the Canadian prairie when, late in life, she mused that she had painted horizontal lines for longer than any other painter. Subtle shades of white and taupe in The Spring, and grey washes overlaid with a graphite grid in The River, on the other hand, are more readily associated with the monochromatic beauty of the East River in New York.

Charting axes from Canada to New York to New Mexico, even when such locales are not explicitly identified, Martin’s paintings are always shadowed by a sense of place, grounding the artist’s attempts to inculcate in her art singular moments of insight and reverie while acknowledging the elastic potential of the here and now.

Jan Avgikos