Agnes Martin’s slow art

Agnes Martin, Cuba, New Mexico, 1970s

Agnes Martin, Cuba, New Mexico, 1970s

“You have to have a mind of winter to see nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.” — Wallace Stevens


Agnes Martin painted like a thief. She seemed to be attempting to leave behind as little evidence of herself–or anything else–whenever she touched a canvas. It’s a self-effacing posture consistent with her immersion in Taoist spiritual traditions, and it’s part of what gives the rigorous austerity of her work its humble charm in the current Guggenheim retrospective. Yet as impersonal as the work appears, it’s often as beguiling as a simple, four- or five-note melody from nursery school. You climb the whorl of the Guggenheim’s spiral gallery, craving more than what’s there for much of the way. It makes you hungry for color, expecting to get it once you reach that museum’s higher elevations. Yet when it arrives, it leaves you wanting even more. Her tones are as faint and subtle as the pinks and blues in a Turner dawn. Meanwhile, there’s almost nothing to see in one pencilled spreadsheet grid after another, rows and columns of rectangles stacked on rectangles, each one as empty as the next. Then you’ll suddenly come upon a large, thin veil of paint that looks as soft and sensuous as felt or velour. The paint has a surface Thiebaud would have appreciated, though its almost the opposite of his impasto, more like a faint layer of powdered sugar on a cushion of icing, and, as if to heighten the effect through contrast, she scores that paint with a net of lines drawn into the still-soft medium. Again and again you feel a serene tension between the extreme simplicity of her means — the near-absence of all form — and the often sensuous, tactile surface, where the weave of the fabric, the absorbent gesso and finally the thin washes of paint all fuse to become a physical object that looks as if it were made to be stroked with your fingertips. (Which is an interesting urge considering the fact that she maintained she was trying to visualize an immaterial, spiritual state.) While the painting does seem to convey a state of mind, it also seduces you with its physicality. You note these polarities only if you stand and look with persistence, surrender to the static hum of her color or lack of it. Her art requires you to slow down and gives you almost nothing to think about. Judging from the evidence in this retrospective, it’s probably safe to assume she was constantly wondering how one might translate into paint the “no-mind” of Ch’an Buddhism’s Sixth Patriarch: awaken the mind without attaching it to anything.


I had never heard of Agnes Martin until four or five years ago, when for the first time I came upon one of her paintings, Untitled #6, at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. The painting radiated an aura of absolute stillness and peace, and it seemed alive with evidence of extreme concentration and care in the way she had applied her color in horizontal bands, the edges of her color gauzy and diaphanous, in contrast to the crisp and resolute graphite lines dividing one band of color from the next. Though almost the diametrical opposite of Braque’s, who was a sort of geologist of form and color, her work reminded me of his assiduous exactitude in every detail, answering to some inner need and conviction. Where Braque’s care produced magically complex but unified compositions, Martin reduces everything to the simplest possible terms so even the notion of composition itself seems to disappear. (All you can get a fix on in much her work is a random, haphazard quality in the way she applied the paint, the variations in tone and wavering “tremelo” she invited into a straight line.) In this case, the radical simplicity of her image — the absence of anything for the mind to latch onto as interesting, the paradoxical sense of both emptiness and plenitude — wouldn’t let me go. I leaned toward the canvas, trying to see why I was responding so pleasurably to it, spotting the graphite she incised into her paint to define the stripes of faint, pastel color and how they contrasted so sharply with the haze of color. My response to the painting was immediate and intense. It was a work that radiated contentment and a simplicity of mind and heart. I was baffled by how she had achieved this, and in my memory of the painting, the colors are richer than anything I saw at the Guggenheim. I suspect this is a trick of memory. Untitled #6 would probably have fit into the Guggenheim exhibition perfectly, and wouldn’t have stood out from its companions at all. (The painting preceding it, Untitled #5, is included in the show, and the short essay about it is the most illuminating response, in the entire catalog, to what makes Martin appealing.) I remember this first encounter with Martin as love-at-first-sight, not to be repeated in my first look at anything in this retrospective, and yet that encounter in New Mexico predisposed me to go out of my way to visit the Guggenheim and then to question in new ways how much is actually there to see. I came away from the retrospective in a far more complex mood, unable to resolve contradictory reactions to what she achieved. It left me more puzzled by her work than before — though maybe in a good way. I think of her as she probably wanted to be thought of: a sort of bodhisattva of painting, whose approach to life and paint is almost more inspiring and valuable than the work itself. But you can’t have one without the other.

Walking through this retrospective created, for me, a sort of double vision–a bifurcated response. On the one hand, I tried to react to the paintings as someone would who knew nothing about art history — and nothing about Agnes Martin herself — a nearly impossible challenge. Insofar as I was able to put into brackets everything I already knew about her and about twentieth-century art, I was discouraged to find that the show left me wanting more. The crux of it is that none of the individual works had the effect that Untitled # 6 had on me in Santa Fe, and I couldn’t understand why. I had had a conversation earlier that morning with my friends, and hosts in New Jersey, and they said what they have always said, that they can’t see why most of modern art is considered art at all. This is a highly educated couple, with ample income, sophisticated taste, and they actually collect original contemporary prints: hand-made etchings and lithographs, not giclee ink-jets. They simply didn’t have the heart to climb the Guggenheim’s spiral to see pictures of nothing, which I’m sure is essentially how Martin’s work looks to them. (And in a sense this was how she intended it to look.) And so I had that conversation echoing in my head as I attended the show. It was impossible to know whether my expectations set me up for what was a slightly disappointing experience, but one thing is certain: I didn’t come to it with an empty mind.

I was prepared to be enthralled by some of the work but came away full of conflicting thoughts–which I’m pretty sure is the opposite of what Martin was trying to achieve. She herself said, at one point, that she had learned to completely stop thinking (as Krishnamurti advocated) and her work is meant to slow you down to the point where you cast aside expectations and simply surrender and dwell with what little is there to see. On the other hand, knowing where Martin found herself as a painter, historically, I recognized the work as brilliant, subtle, a seemingly necessary permutation of what had been done already, starting with Malevich and Ad Reinhardt, and what was yet to be done in painting, by Stella and others. As I looked, I found myself more and more dissatisfied by her empty grids, a whole series she did in the middle of her career, images which are little more than slightly varied rows of empty rectangles hovering in negative space. One could duplicate these spreadsheet charts now in a matter of minutes with Excel. She claimed they were her interpretation of trees — bringing to mind Mondrian’s evolution, from the abstracted trees he painted to the grids he settled on. Historically, these are probably her most significant work — they take visual art to a place even Mondrian didn’t quite reach, saying essentially, you can really go no further than this in reducing art to its most minimal terms in a grid. And once this has been done, there’s no point in going back — almost as if visual art were an arctic explorer who gets to the planet’s axis on a field of ice and dies there, simply to have done it. And this is how so much of 20th century art feels: an attempt to take a path to its extreme in order to have proven that it can be considered art. (And then of course things swing back the other way, and you find yourself thirsting for a chance to see the sort of painterly, representational grids being done now by Chuck Close.)

Martin’s spare tables of lines seem one step away from the total emptiness of Modernism’s various monotones: Malevich’s black square, Reinhardt’s black paintings, Stella’s black paintings, Ryman’s white paintings, and even Rauschenberg’s white paintings, though the latter’s work seems to lean more toward conceptualism. Rauschenberg’s version was closer to the rote execution of a formula, which anyone could undertake, like Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings. (So do Martin’s grids, to a degree.) All of this work takes the nihilism of modern art to its ultimate conclusion — the elimination of almost everything to actually look at except the painted object itself.

In the case of Martin and Reinhardt, painting is an empty terrain, a corollary of the isolating desert occupied by Thomas Merton’s desert fathers, the early mystics who left behind the world and everything they knew in order to seek the truth. Reinhardt’s and Martin’s pursuits were deeply spiritual, in a traditional way, like Merton’s, informed by mystical traditions from various religions, what Karen Armstrong calls the apophatic path — the evacuation of everything in the mind in order to see God. The other painters would embrace a similar kind of negation, like Malevich, to assert the supremacy of art over representation — without necessarily linking it to any stance on spirituality. Arden Reed calls it “slow art” a way certain art has of luring the viewer back to a quiet spirituality lost in the hurly burly of contemporary life. Peter Scheldahl wrote an illuminating piece on Robert Ryman a year ago, which happens to put Martin into even clearer perspective historically:

Ryman is rooted in a phase of artistic sensibility that was coincident with early minimalism and Pop, and is still in need of a name. Call it the Age of Paying Attention, or the Noticing Years, or the Not So Fast Era. American art underwent convulsive changes in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, following the triumph and swift decline of Abstract Expressionism. A vast cohort of young artists and intellectuals, many of them academically trained, flooded into formerly patrician or bohemian scenes. To qualify as hip, you registered fine distinctions—between a photograph of Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of a photograph of her, say, or between Carl Andre’s stack of bricks on a gallery floor and a stack of bricks anywhere else. Skeptical attitudes, averse to mimesis and metaphor, put a withering pressure on painting, including even the simplest abstraction. Barely passing muster were the evenly pencilled grids of Agnes Martin, the broody monochromes of Brice Marden, and Ryman’s taciturn brushstrokes. What you saw, while not a lot, stayed seen. The mental toughness that defined sophistication in art back then is rare now.

And then he adds a crucial, corrective observation:

Ryman’s is a kind of mute art that, generating reverent and brainy chatter, puts uninitiated citizens in mind of the emperor’s new clothes. The emperor—roughly, high-modernist faith in art’s world-changing mission—could retain fealty only if stripped of fancy styles and sentimental excuses. That was Ryman’s formative moment. It was succeeded by a suspicion, now amounting to a resigned conviction, that contemporary art is an industry producing just clothes, with no ruling authority inside them.

That’s a wonderful passage in which he conveys the fertile pandemonium of art during the middle of the American century into one crisp assessment, finally acknowledging that art as a whole may have completely lost its way in this march toward what seems a dead end. Though Martin was accepted into this exclusive club, she was pushing back against all of it, wanting the viewer to slow down to a complete stop and simply gaze, as a monk would do, facing a wall. Schjeldahl nails the kind of snobby, knowing and elitist ethos that has increasingly surrounded art since the advent of modernism. The lesson being that if you don’t do your homework, good luck in finding something to see when you visit Dia Beacon. Because there’s much to think about and very little to actually look at in most of that work. Perhaps my conversation with my good friends at breakfast made it impossible to escape this skepticism about the pretenses of contemporary art–which extends even to work I love–as I walked though an exhibition of paintings by probably one of the humblest and least pretentious artists who ever lived. So, by the end of my visit to the Guggenheim, I felt I I had done Agnes a disservice by holding back as did, but my doubts were genuine, and they are simply part of the struggle every visual artists faces now.


Why bother? Why not just pay attention to work that charms me immediately and rewards me generously with each repeated viewing? Well, it does sound like a sensible plan in a world where anything goes. But Martin’s work stopped me in my tracks in Santa Fe with sheer pleasure, joy, and delight, much the way I respond to the formal qualities of work by Stella, Kenneth Noland, and even Bridget Riley. For me, her stripes belong to that family of work — if you uncouple them from the motives and philosophy behind the work, the movements and theories that attended them. Behind them all, including Martin, hovers the Cheshire smile of their great grandfather, Matisse. Yet she is by far the most soft-spoken, and therefore the most difficult to hear, of the bunch. Their stated motives may have been completely different from hers, but weren’t they all aiming to give happiness, in their own ways — and happiness was her only avowed goal. To convey happiness in paint.

When I saw that painting in Santa Fe, I wanted to bring it home with me. It did make me happy for as long as I was looking at it. Yet I continue to be drawn to her because nearly everything Martin said about painting, and by implication about life, was profound and true. Her art was the tip of an iceberg of genuine wisdom. As the show’s catalog puts it: “Over the course of her long life Martin explored and absorbed a range of life-views, including . . . Calvanism, expressions of visionary Christianity, Platonism, transcendentalism, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and last, but not least, Taoism.” (Nevermind that if she delved into Zen Buddhism, her plate already contained a big serving of Taoism. ) This is an artist who understood exactly why she painted — to get closer to God, whatever she understood that word to mean. It’s a tonic for so much of what passes for art now that an anchorite like Martin continues to be honored with a retrospective like this. The question of whether her art lives up to her own wisdom is the unanswerable question at the heart of modern art itself.

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