Haphazard, I visited three exhibitions over the weekend; as it turned out, each had something in common. All three artists reached their mature, abstract styles during the 1950s, a period when American Expressionism dominated the avant-garde. Two were in new venues designed by Caruso St John; another – Tate Modern – is about to launch its new extension by Herzog & de Meuron. All made an impact with their extraordinary use of colour and their glorious, tactile, textural use of paint. For a start, Agnes Martin…
I rushed to Tate Modern first of all as I realised that the retrospective of Agnes Martin was about to end. Martin’s early abstract works referenced numerous masters of American Expressionism as she tried out various different approaches. The earliest are somewhere between Joan Miro and Cy Twombly, with floating biomorphic forms on a painterly white ground and lines like threads or roots or scratchy hieroglyphs. ‘Harbour’ develops the amoeba-like forms into something more solid, with echoes of William Scott; while further on the shapes are simplified as Martin moves towards a paler vision of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman – both of whose influence she acknowledged (‘Untitled’, 1959, above).
In fact, Martin was taken on by New York art dealer Betty Parsons, who represented both Rothko and Newman. From Taos, New Mexico, Martin moved into a sailmaker’s loft in New York to take up this offer; here she experimented with ‘found’ objects, producing some sculptural pieces using driftwood and nails, and also incorporating nails into paintings on canvas such as ‘Untitled’ (1962, above). These remain an anomaly in her career, but were perhaps in some way instrumental in her move towards ever simpler forms – squares, rectangles, dots and repetitive linear marks.
‘More and more I excluded from my paintings all curved lines, until finally my compositions consisted only of vertical and horizontal lines’ Martin has explained; yet her series of large square canvases from the 1960s-70s show the powerful effect that this austerity of means could produce. The ‘aesthetic of the grid’ is explored in all its subtle permutations (even using gold leaf in ‘Friendship’, 1963, above top); Martin painted the canvas – usually white or pale grey – before constructing intricate grids using pencil lines. An early series from the 1960s are like an intense study of workbooks – maths books, accounting books, lined notebooks – rational and repetitive in design, but on a grand scale strangely hypnotic and deeply calming (‘Morning’, 1965, above). The human hand is ever there, in the texture of the painted background and the lines which sometimes waver very slightly and do not quite meet that edge of the canvas – yet the superimposed grid structure contains and controls this human fallibility. Together the series has an almost monumental presence. It is interesting that curator at this point informs us that Martin suffered form schizophrenia.
This striving for control and perfection is given new form in a series of thirty screen prints, ‘On a Clear Day’ (1972, above), completed in Stuttgart, Germany. There is something perverse about using the roundabout method of screenprinting simply to reproduce pencil-drawn grids, perfectly. Some grids are contained, others open-ended, untethered and infinite; all thirty are different, variations on a theme rather like music. Then colour returns with a series from 1974, pale pinks, blues and yellows softly applied to a surface of acrylic gesso in precise rectangles or stripes, delineated by the ever-present and just-visible pencil lines (‘Untitled #3, 1974, below; ‘Untitled’, 1977, study on paper, bottom).
The grey paintings that began in 1977, though reduced in colour range, are more varied in technique. In one, Martin uses a textural gypsum ground covered by a wash of Indian ink on top of which her habitual horizontal bands are drawn in graphite. Some paintings are graphic, using flat planes of paint and sharp edges; others are like studies of the surface of rocks, up close and on a large scale (‘Untitled #12’, 1977, below).
Next door is a series of twelve white paintings, ‘The Islands’ (1979), with pencil lines as fine as cobwebs and such pale modulation of colour that it might just be one’s vision playing tricks. They are dreamlike, the shifting lines creating a silent rhythm, almost pulsating around the room. Everyone was silent, inspired by a contemplative awe; or was this prompted by the curatorial text asserting that the paintings should ‘invite concentrated looking’ and ‘convey a contemplative quality’ reflecting ‘East Asian philosophy and spirituality’? Context and cultural norms will always play a part – a painting above an altar will often inspire awe and a certain mystical transcendence that it might not if it were on the wall of a canteen or an office, though it might still glean respect and admiration.
Martin’s later career (she lived until 92, back in New Mexico) shows her revisiting past styles – the colour stripes, the grey paintings (‘Untitled #5’, 1991, above), the early Rothko-esque canvases – but with a brighter, looser paint surface, and in some the introduction of solid geometric shapes superimposed (‘Untitled #1’, 2003, below). These are the closest Martin gets to ‘landscape’; while the work of other artists drawn to New Mexico, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, are suffused with natural forms, there is none of that here. Yet there is a common feeling for the wide empty spaces and timelessness of that land, something primitive and elemental.
Next episode: Cy Twombly at the Gagosian and John Hoyland at the Newport Street Gallery…