The Deliberate Simplicity of Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin, The Sea, 2003. Acrylic and graphite on canvas. 60"x60"
In a letter from 1981, Agnes Martin wrote, “We live a short time in this life and then we are gone from it without a trace, like last summer’s leaves.” In her series of geometric abstractions and grids dating from 1957-2004, Martin achieved an elegant reduction of formal issues in painting, consolidated into intelligent, reposeful meditation. Martin’s work serves as a corrective to current issues of careerism, visual hyper-saturation, and gimmicks in contemporary painting. While using a deliberately simple trick, Martin thoroughly explores the gamut of expressions, resulting in a surprisingly robust personal language of deceptively minimal elements.
In observing the surfaces of Martin’s paintings, there is nothing immediately remarkable, save for the restraint with which delicate washes of colors are barely applied. The cleanliness of ruled graphite lines and the orderly compartmentalization of canvas areas, perhaps with masking tapes, speak to the sort of dull control sometimes found in problematic geometric abstractions. Martin, however, makes no apologies for method and reveals her materials and technique with a lucid honesty. What is first taken for absence in the works becomes a form of clarity, an opening-up and revelation of sensitive, intuitive expressions operating simultaneously on a literal and unconscious level, a veritably transcendent visual philosophy of startling poignancy.
In the case of Happiness (2001-2003, 60”x60”, acrylic and pencil on canvas), Martin does not describe the exuberant, effusive happiness of gratification or ecstatic frenzy so often depicted in fluorescents and curvilinear assaults. Instead, this happiness is a distillation of experiences and memory, thoughts, reflections, and the spaces between events which comprise everyday life. The canvas has a clean structure, divided nearly in half by three horizontal bands of a faint, washy blue. The top half contains fifteen alternating stripes of a creamy light yellow overlaid with faint blue washes, and the lower half is similar, with thirteen stripes. Pencil lines harmoniously coexist with wobbly edges of washes, such that they are neither truly divisive nor fully integrated –they simply are.
Faint pulses of a deeper greenish yellow hum under the surface like whispers, recalling momentary pleasures just as one closes her eyes in afternoon sunlight, remembering. The trembling fluid energies are so barely present that the shallow depth created by tonal shifts seems to be an illusion or a flickering of vision as the viewer breathes in and out, yet the central lighter region glows as a consequence, as if lit from within.
The piece speaks to impermanence, the fluttering instants in life, the intense fragility in human existence, but above all the quiet and contemplative joy found in it all. Though Martin said we leave without a trace, she has provided many glimpses and traces to her truth, unclouded and pure. Martin shows that to understand, a person need only see, and in turn, be among the elements of this world, where so much beauty thrives in such simple things.
If Happiness is a logic which required quiet, Martin’s Untitled 1957 piece (#16 – 51½” x 38”, oil on canvas) requires complexity, and in turn complicity. A white field washes over graphite triangles, settling into varying soft shades of grey. Two columns reflect over a central axis to reveal a sequence of triangles (1, 3 rows of 3, 16 rows of 4, 3 of 3, 1) which spread outward like wings or an expanding diaphragm taking a breath. Ten triangles in the upper left are outlined with graphite over the oil, along with partial sides of other triangles which dissipate like incomplete thoughts or meditations trailing off into silence. The shifting opacities of the white overlay render the triangles like optical scattering despite their orderly arrangement within an evident grid. With rows recalling gravestones or calendar days, the triangles take on a quality of reflection, and in their fleeting presence, allow viewers the pleasurable uncertainty of whether they see something actual or remembered, not unlike retinal illusions or optical challenges issued by other artists in garish neons or harsh intensities.
Martin’s surface is remarkably energetic in spite of its static and compulsive regularity, calling attention to the subtle richness of detail and variety in marks made by the human hand. By keeping everything about the painting muted, Martin encourages a meditative study, an involved contemplation beyond observation or reluctant acknowledgement of a system. The ideas do not batter us or force themselves upon us : they sink under the skin and seep into our breath with tiny pulses and intriguing invitations to look, then look again.
The work functions both as a geometric system and a field, with levels of interest that range from rolling hills to blades of grass, and in this thoroughness of language and complexity of grammar, Martin gets the viewer speaking in her tongue, thinking through her logic, even breathing in the cadence of her breaths. This is not abstraction read by the mind, rather felt in the body, understood in an interactive, visceral, yet quiet way.
Agnes Martin is not all tranquil washes of color and airy space. In The Sea (2003, 60”x60”, acrylic and graphite on canvas), she takes us to a darker, more foreboding place. A thick black field is shattered with broken white lines that read like incisions. The irregularity of the piercing white intimates some activity within or underneath the surface, such that this sea is not of a quiet depth, rather a tumultuous chaos described in light glinting off ripples of waves. The black is modeled in its application, adding a disruptive energy to an otherwise oppressive organization of 74 white horizontal lines in five vertical bands with four central columns reiterated with 37 short horizontals between. A 2-inch thickly-painted white band surrounds the black square, serving as both a visual relief and a confining mechanism which renders the rhythmic lines all the more exhausting and tense. The symmetrical widening of the columns from the center outward reinforce the disruptions of the short lines, heightening the jagged and precarious sense of falling-off threatened where sectors meet, the darker open areas appearing as precipices into which these lines have rapidly plunged. The intensity of repetition invokes infinities and an awareness of space and time. Contained in such an analytic and haunting way, this dark and complex sea of thought, information and energy becomes totemic, anachronistic, and in some ways arcanely symbolic, as if we have just come upon an ancient tribal description of a universe that cannot possibly be taken in all at once. In a dizzying and more overt way than in many of her other works, Martin reveals the duality of existence, uncovering frightening murky abysses with the same disciplined level of control and restraint characteristic of her work, yet reinvigorated in this peculiar level of involvement, the shadowy foil or more meaningful negative to a 1957 graphite study of horizontals in a similar composition.
Agnes Martin is an effective and concise painter, saying neither too little nor too much with a confoundingly limited vocabulary. In spite of – or more likely because of – such simple formal language, Martin achieves a wide range of emotional and ideological content bordering on the semiotic or mystical. With meditative compositions, Martin recalls heartbeats or counting breaths, creating images which are decidedly calm, but with a pulse. Claiming to express “pure emotion” without excessive explanation, Martin’s controlled utterances explicitly say what so many painters have said wrong, said too loudly, and said a thousand times yet rarely said with the clarity and effectiveness of a well-chosen and simple statement.
Martin’s work gives pause, both literally in its presence and metaphorically in the conversational space it occupies, and though it is quiet, it is not a silence. The tightness and precision with which Martin ascribes and adheres to order provides the formal framework upon which a surprisingly breadth of complex ideas are explored, elegantly executed in the seemingly unlabored and devoted state of a true believer sharing her insight. To modern viewers, Martin may not be as immediately seductive and alluring as our regular fare, but once we enter into Martin’s world, we find a refined intelligence and rare sophistication of formal elements capable of satisfying and eliciting the most discerning appetites, providing an uncommon level of evocative intrigue.
- Agnes Martin biography and selected works
- Agnes Martin obituary, The Washington Post