Like a clear dawn where the sky lightens imperceptibly, yet, somehow both gradually and suddenly, unfolds into a new day, Agnes Martin’s paintings reveal themselves slowly. What they reveal says a great deal about the artist as well as the viewer. Humble, gentle, calming and restorative, they give you a moment’s pause, a bit of perspective, and the long view. Life isn’t as hectic as we tell ourselves it is. It’s possible to slow things down, at least for moments. One of those moments can be found in the Guggenheim’s Agnes Martin retrospective.
“For more than 40 years, Agnes Martin created serene paintings composed of grids and stripes,” explained Tracey Bashkoff, senior curator in the museum’s Collections and Exhibitions department. “Martin’s commitment to this spare style was informed by a belief in the transformative power of art, in its ability to conjure what she termed abstract emotions — happiness, love, and experiences of innocence, freedom, beauty and perfection. For Martin, these were the only true subjects of art, and she devoted herself to conveying them through her luminous paintings, drawings and prints.”
Through Jan. 11, the Guggenheim is hosting the first retrospective of Martin’s work since her death in 2004. Martin, widely regarded as one of the most important figures in late 20th century American art, could be seen, to paraphrase St. Paul, as being in the art world but not of it. After having achieved an astonishing level of success and recognition for a female artist in the late 1950s, Martin left New York behind to seek solitude and quiet and found her voice. She traveled for a few years across the U.S. and Canada (where she was born), finally settling in New Mexico, and never leaving. There she found what nurtured her soul and informed her work.
The exhibition, co-curated by Bashkoff and guest curator Tiffany Bell, includes some 115 works chronicling Martin’s entire career, and includes some of her most famous works, as well as drawings, sculpture and little known early figural abstractions. There are also journals, notes and books of Martin’s writing on display. The show follows the course of her life, starting with early work and rising to the soaring skylight where her some of her most joyous paintings, with titles such as “Blessings,” “Gratitude,” and “Loving Love,” reside.
Martin favored 6-foot square canvases and filled them with very little. Lines, washes of color, pencil markings, dots and bands seem to repeat across the surfaces and across her oeuvre — unless you take the time to look. As one stands in front of them, changes can be sensed. Hazy irregularities merge into soft horizons. Lines expand, but are contained. Is the sense of eternity an apparition born in the hand of the artist or the spirit of the viewer?
Bashkoff said, “I think when you give yourself over to looking at the work, there’s a certain amount of acceptance when you really let it communicate with you. I think you do kind of access the way she made her work ... some of her thinking about it. The slowing down. The emptying of your mind.”
Bell pointed out that while Martin may have led a spiritually driven life, she resisted associating her work with anything religious. Rather, Bell said, “Martin said that she’d like the experience to recall beauty that you might feel in a landscape ... that might trigger that kind of experience but it doesn’t represent it.”
Martin’s work when encountered sporadically, one or two pieces here and there, always feel like a stopping point, a repose. Seeing a whole museum’s worth feels like a glimpse of timelessness. They’re soft and gentle, yet powerful in their unyielding adherence to the artist’s own stringent set of visual rules.
“There was a time where I thought that the work was about things that are the same. The more time I’ve spent with them, I understand that it’s more about things that are different from each other,” Bashkoff said, “the little differences in syncopation and proportion and color that she’s used really take you to that place of understanding and appreciation.”
The best place to experience that is in a gallery filled with 12 enormous white canvases, each bearing lines drawn in pencil, one of the humblest of artist’s materials. The lines travel confidently across the plane, yet bear evidence of the human touch. Some are strong, some are wobbly, yet finally all do what Martin intended.
“I think that everyone is on his own line,” Martin, a poet as well as a painter, once said. “I think that after you’ve made one step, the next step reveals itself. I believe that you were born on this line. I don’t say that the actual footsteps were marked before you get to them, and I don’t say that change isn’t possible in your course. But I do believe we unfold out of ourselves, and we do what we are born to do sooner or later, anyway.”