Her Back to the World
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," wrote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I wish. Faced with the luminous paintings of Agnes Martin on view at the Menil Collection, I'd like nothing better than to just shut up and bask in their glow. Alas, the critic does not live by contemplation alone, not if he wants to be paid.
So, to the task. The exhibit's title, "Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond," is something of a double entendre. In 1992, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized a survey of Martin's career (which included a stop at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum). This exhibit, curated by former Menil director Ned Rifkin, picks up where the retrospective left off; the earliest work is dated 1993, the most recent, 2001. But the title also refers to the occasion of Martin's 90th birthday in March and her continued dedication as an artist who, 20 years past her biblical allotment, still goes to her Taos studio every day.
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912, Martin moved to the United States in 1931 and became a citizen in 1950. For years, she yo-yoed between New York and New Mexico, finally settling (at least for a decade) in Lower Manhattan. In 1967, she gave up painting, left New York and, after touring the American West and Canada in a pickup and camper, settled in New Mexico for good. But while she gave up painting, painting wouldn't give up her. In 1973, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia mounted the first survey of her career; as if reminded of unfinished business, she returned to her studio the following year.
Early on, Martin's simple grid compositions got her lumped in with minimalist painters like Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella, but she has always insisted that she's an abstract expressionist, in the camp of Mark Rothko and her friend Barnett Newman. (It's instructive to stroll down to the other end of the Menil, where a small gallery contains some of their work, for comparison.) Martin's paintings are five feet square, acrylic on canvas and, for the most part, follow the same format: horizontal bands of pastel colors -- blues, pinks and yellows -- and white defined by graphite lines. The bands vary in width and breadth from painting to painting, but the colors are always aligned in distinct patterns, anchored on a horizontal divide. For all their lyricism, these are meticulous paintings, as if there are rules involved that Martin cannot break; in fact, endpapers in the catalog show the calculations by which she works out the spatial relationships of her bands of color. Frequently, she "finishes" the paintings with a thin white acrylic wash, further softening the pastel colors with wispy clouds that seem to float across the surface of the canvas.
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At the heart of this exhibit is a suite of six paintings, With My Back to the World (1997). In a way, the suite speaks to Martin's entire project. In "The Untroubled Mind," a poemlike compilation of the artist's remarks first published in the catalog to the Philadelphia ICA exhibit, the artist identifies herself as a classicist, one of those "people that look out with their back to world"; she goes on to speak of "more perfection than is possible in the world." Perfection comes up a lot in Martin's writings and interviews, since it is, for her, what art is about: the expression of the perfection that the mind can imagine, the classical aesthetics of balance and proportion.
But another touchstone for Martin is the word humility. The perfection can only be imagined, never realized; the best you can do is wait for the inspiration (another favorite word) and submit to the attempt to express it. So it's not surprising to notice an unevenness to her graphite lines or colors bleeding across them when you step closer to the paintings. These imperfections seem deliberate, an acceptance of chance and accident, just as it's deliberate that the graphite lines generally stop shy of the edges of the canvas. Martin's paintings are not closed systems; there's more than a suggestion that these orderly patterns of colors expand out into the world, much as Mondrian's grids are to be understood as pieces of a larger -- indeed, infinite -- pattern.
Because Martin titled some paintings early in her career with references to the natural world (such as Flower in the Wind or The Rose), it is often assumed that nature is the inspiration for her work, an assumption that she has been adamant about dispelling. In fact, she has said she regrets having spoken of the experience, during her time on the road, of driving down out of the mountains and seeing the plains, the horizon and the skies opening up and unfolding before her. As one critic has noted, such a literal reading of her paintings is not so much wrong as it is incomplete: Martin's work is not inspired by specifics of nature but is informed by nature experienced as a benign and ever-changing totality. This point is borne out by the titles (sometimes the same title for different paintings) that accompany some of the works in the second half of this exhibit. Beautiful Life (2000) is truly a beautiful composition, with wide pink and blue bands separated by a narrower yellow band at the center and bounded by identical yellow bands at top and bottom. I Love the Whole World and Lovely Life (both 1999) share a similar format of thin bars on a lighter ground -- pink on white and pale blue on yellow, respectively. My initial reaction to these titles, such as the lovely Loving Love (2000), was to wince at the saccharine Hallmark sentiments. My second response was that at age 90, the artist likely wouldn't give a fig for what I thought. And my final response is that since I don't live with my back to the world, perhaps I am too much exposed to (and a product of) our sentimental culture and do not recognize true, expansive purity of feeling when I walk into it. Agnes Martin's late paintings, simply and with quiet eloquence, express a transcendent acceptance of life and the world, an embracing of the fragile and the temporal within the ever-changing overall.
Hence the wish to heed Wittgenstein's counsel. Perfection, transcendence, purity, inspiration -- these are difficult things to speak of without sounding either sanctimonious or silly or both (or, for that matter, dangerous -- when someone starts talking about perfection and purity, someone else usually gets killed). So perhaps those qualities shouldn't be spoken of, though they can be sought. That's Agnes Martin's task, the work she patiently bends to every day in her studio. The paintings gathered here are beautiful and meticulous and lyrical, but what makes this exhibition such a serene sanctuary is the quiet, necessary humility emanating from them.
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