Over one hundred of Agnes Martin’s paintings and drawings spiral up the ramp of Guggenheim. These quiet, sophisticated works, void of narrative, exist somewhere along the continuum of abstract expressionism and minimalism, but, in a nod to her inspiration from Eastern religions, they are neither/nor. The art historical term “non-objective” exists to describe non-narrative work that often uses geometric imagery, like Martin’s, yet it is a wide umbrella that also covers Russian painter Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings.
One of the first encounters on the journey upwards is a room that contains her white paintings, The Islands I-XII (1979). They are all 72” square and of the same palette, white with very subtle bands of light blue and graphite demarcations that serve to divide the paintings into geometric permutations of widening bands, both horizontal and vertical.
I sat on the benches and tried to clear my mind in front of these subtle, luminous paintings. I felt reverence, or felt that I was supposed to feel it. They commanded awe. The experience reminded me of being in the Rothko chapel, another place to absorb the simultaneous emptiness and fullness of abstract painting, the throbbing intensity of another soul’s intentions, so thoughtfully and meticulously directed onto the canvas.
I had to wrestle away the bulky thoughts generated from the didactic wall labels. If I was to talk to Martin, she would definitely say that they are obstructions. Understanding her art demands getting beyond thought. I decided that I felt it in my spirit and also on my skin, their glowing light reflecting back at me.
People were walking in front of me and blocking my view. They were positioning her paintings in their iPhones, taking pictures. Like meditation, it was a battle to stay present and clear my mind in order to have a contemplative experience. Viewing Martin’s paintings felt like walking through the Stations of the Cross but I was in a museum, not a church.
Martin’s ideals of beauty held fast throughout her life, though what appears so clean, crisp and coherent in her retrospective is instead a carefully culled presentation of her oeuvre, because Martin burned the work she didn’t like. In this way, she was her own curator, asserting her discerning eye not just on every single painting/drawing but on her entire body of work. This clarity also elides the difficulties she experienced—she suffered from schizophrenia. She quit painting and drove around the country for several years before she settled in New Mexico and started up again, resuming her dedicated practice.
There’s a series of hand-written pages, responses to a biography requested by an institution; one contains advice to young artists: “The life of an artist is inspired, self sufficient and independent (unrelated to society)…an artist’s life…struggles painfully against its own conditioning. It appears to rebel but in reality is an inspired way of life.”
A short film made during interviews with Martin three years before her death in 2004 is also on exhibit. The film shows Martin in her spartan room at an artist’s retirement community in New Mexico, and also at her studio, painting.
“I bet people think this looks easy,” said Martin, while painting a diluted acrylic yellow wash over a painted white canvas. “But it’s not. It’s very hard.”
While I was in the gift store, waiting for the museum to open, I had seen something with the phrase, “‘I could do that’” and the response, “Yeah, but you didn’t” printed beneath it. Oh, how many times has someone said this, if not to me, then around me, resulting in me having a inner dialogue that echoes this quip. A lot of contemporary art inspires people who don’t have an extensive education in art history to make flippant remarks about its construction and/or content. There’s an extensive dialogue within the art historical canon that the work is responding to, but they’re unaware of this vast web. They’re not stuck in it, like the artist, or me, or the show’s curator. For the non-inducted these threads remain invisible, translucent; but for those who see them there exists a complex array of meaning. That’s my favorite pastime, tracing along these threads, following their different turns, and making surprise connections.
The Guggenheim is also a spiral, curling inwards, towards the pinnacle. One walks upwards through Martin’s life, viewing her work in chronological order, ending at the top, beneath the glowing skylight, where her last painting is on exhibit. I sat at the final station and read two essays out of the show’s catalogue. Martin’s own writing about her work remains idealized, absolutist. In her interview footage, she says something to the effect that she only paints the beautiful; she stays above the line and doesn’t go into dark places. In an essay on The Islands by Richard Tobin, Martin is quotes as saying, “Nature is like a parting curtain, you go into it.”
Much of her work is untitled and numbered, and strangely, the numbers get lower at she gets older. But other paintings have titles–Peaches, Tree, Fiesta. As I stared at Peaches I thought about DNA coding, or the binary coding of computer language, and how Martin’s dedicated, spiritual vision had allowed her to lift nature’s veil in order to portray what lies beneath, to reveal their essence. The paintings titled White Stone and Blue Stone are phenomenal–pure feats of her mastery and skill, the artist’s reflections, distilled and made visual. Their rendering is so delicate, precise, and willful, like her practice–forged into being.
“Asked why the grid was important for her, she replied that it represented ‘innocence.’” I read that in another essay, “In Pursuit of the Neutral: Agnes Martin’s Shimmering Line,” by Anna Lovatt.
Maybe the grid held Martin into place; her spirit tethered to it like a kite, her hand gliding over the canvas, willing it into being, this system that strained out the ugly and horrible, the act of painting–and the work of it—ritualistic, like a cleansing.
Lovatt ascribes Roland Barthes’ idea of the shimmer to Martin’s aesthetic practice. The shimmer is a concept he developed around a literary movement, zero-degree writing, contemporaneous with abstract expressionism. Barthes described “the shimmer” as “that whose aspect, perhaps whose meaning, is subtly modified according to angle of the subject’s gaze.” Perhaps Martin’s “non hierarchical, subtly modulated shimmer of the hand-drawn grid” is just like the spider’s web, gleaming in the morning sunlight, seen from a particular angle but invisible from other perspectives. Martin’s art shimmers for some; for those who are looking from just the right angle.
It is a matter of cultivation, as suggested in three of her later paintings, Loving Love (1999), Gratitude (2001), and Blessings (2000). She remained devout to the end. Martin believed that “the greatest happiness resided in the mind of a newborn child,” suggested one wall label. That’s not an obtainable goal, but the idea glimmers from my mortal position, down here on earth.