The Grid in the Spiral: Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim

Agnes Martin, a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheim Museum is hosting a major retrospective of the work of American painter Agnes Martin (1912–2004), the first since her death. Canadian by birth and a New York resident for a seminal period in American art, Martin felt most at home in the shadow of the Taos Mountain in northern New Mexico. Other creative types have traded the city for the mystical light of New Mexico - Andrew Dasburg, Georgia O'Keeffe, Henriette Wyeth, and a large contingent of women artists of the feminist movement, among them, but with Martin, we see a journey that goes inward as well as out west.         

While labeled a minimalist, Martin often self-identified as an Abstract Expressionist. As an expressionist, she expressed emotions, mostly positive ones associated with meditative states. No chaotic lines and exaggerated gestures are here, any contortions or anger, but mostly the cool, calm transcendent power of straight lines penciled in with a ruler. The exhibition moves within the Guggenheim spiral, 115 works in all from the 1950s to her final canvases of the early 2000s, advancing with a few detours (she destroyed most of the detours) toward her famous grid and increasing abstraction. Her meditative practice is better than most.

While the paintings move from tentative forms suggesting representational associations toward a blissful nothingness, mediated by the lights of both Taos and Taoism, the mental and spiritual journey of the artist suggests almost epic struggles. While some New York creative types might routinely fantasize about ditching everything and living in a trailer for some time, Agnes Martin had the guts to live off the grid in order to fully understand it.

Martin's New York years provided both the beginning of her professional success and its jumping off point.  When gallerist Betty Parsons discovered something in Martin’s work that resonated with the art (and money) of the times, Martin moved from New Mexico to the city in 1957. She didn't live just anywhere. She lived in a leaky and drafty loft in Coenties Slip, the historic sailor neighborhood near the seaport. Herman Melville mentions the spot in the first chapter of Moby Dick. Artists had taken up residence there, including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Lenore Tawney, and Jack Youngerman. There's a now-famous photo of Kelly and his entourage on the top of the building. Martin is shown in profile, standing propped along the sloped roof.  She was part of a scene.

Walking up the Guggenheim spiral, the New York works stand out. Here begins the patterning and the grid, with titles that evoke water - rain, harbor, beach. She combines oil and graphite, painting and drawing. She had landed on the grid as a way of seeing and being. In 1963, Martin had also grown comfortable with a 72"x 72" inch canvas, laying down such subtle layers of oils that the paintings reverberate with extreme complexity. You must stay with the paintings and watch them change.

Martin's 1967 flight from New York and art career was precipitated on the surface by her precarious living arrangement, for city inspectors scheduled her leaky loft building for demolition. Complicating the picture was trouble in the inner landscape, her schizophrenia. In New York, she suffered from trance-like episodes and aimless wanderings, at one point necessitating a trip to Bellevue. The exhibition cites her diagnosis as one factor that "informed" her decision to leave New York and abandon painting.

Martin made her way west, wandering from campsite to campsite and suffering from hunger, eventually settling in Cuba, New Mexico. There, she literally rebuilt her life and studio all by her lonesome. She resurfaced in New York at the Pace Gallery in the summer of 1974, inviting the owner to come out to the desert to see new paintings. Now absent the vertical lines, her grid had faded away to horizontals.

After 1974 her paintings grew grayer, and for one year into a near black, continually inviting the viewer to notice subtle differences among them. Like clouds in the sky, she said. In 1976 she made a non-narrative film, Gabriel, featuring a young boy who does little else than walk through the New Mexican landscape.

As new and old paintings traded successfully on the marketplace, Martin's everyday art life attained more security. In 1992, she moved into a Taos retirement home and journeyed every day to a small studio where she painted. She was still seeking perfection and happiness, and she managed to stay above the abyss. Her final paintings signal a mystical move toward the great Unknown.

At the exhibition, take time to watch the videos of Martin in the process of painting. Pay attention to the moment when she says, "I'll bet this looks easy." While painting dripping oils from the top of the canvas to the bottom, in her measured speech and movement and breath, with everything having to be perfect, the artist is experiencing flow.   

Agnes Martin continues at the Guggenheim Museum through January 11, 2017. See museum website. An extensive schedule of events and programs accompanies the exhibition.

Photo by Walking Off the Big Apple from October 10, 2016.

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