Running late, I arrived at the press preview for the Agnes Martin retrospective long after all of the other critics and journalists had left. My inefficiency turned out to be a bonus. I had the place to myself, and walking alone up the Guggenheim spiral and following the unwinding of Agnes Martin’s life in art was the perfect way to apprehend what had been for the artist herself a resolutely solitary endeavor.
Martin’s austere paintings, with neutral palette and delicate line, are beautifully installed in the Guggenheim’s warm white ramp. Unlike other artists, Martin didn’t find her voice until she was well past forty and she destroyed most of her early work. A few that survived, reminiscent of Gorky and Motherwell and devoid of the light touch and line work for which she is known, are on view. But for the most part, the show consists of her notoriously plain but moving canvases, in which minimal color and simple, hand-drawn pencil lines quietly carry the emotional content.
Before the exhibition arrived in New York, Martin’s work was on view at the Tate in London and LACMA in Los Angeles. The reviews for all the iterations of this outstanding show have been predominantly positive, and for the most part each critic suggests that viewers need to spend time with the work.
In the Wall Street Journal, Peter Plagens finds each work uniquely resonant despite the sameness of approach:
The lack of titles makes the poetic resonance in Martin’s art entirely dependent on the visual qualities of the works themselves. And that is where Martin’s genius resides. Her diaphanous grids are neither the hardcore manifestations of logic and repetition that mark the work of such Minimalists as Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, nor the spiritual atmospherics of such abstractionists as Mark Tobey or Bradley Walker Tomlin. They are instead both—miraculously integrated, as only an artist who built an adobe house for herself and also aspired to empty her mind of thought while painting could do. For all the universality of Martin’s grids, each painting is decidedly particular and individual.
In Los Angeles last summer, LA Times critic Christopher Knight remarked on Martin’s interest in Eastern philosophies:
Martin’s interest in Buddhist and Tao philosophies comes through loud and strong, even though the delicacy of the handmade prints is inescapable. Distractions fall away, equilibrium arrives. Has Zen ever looked quite like this before?”
Ben Davis, a critic at artnet News, felt that the paintings, seen together, reveal Martin’s search for clarity.
As you sit and look into [the paintings], though—which is what you should do—you slowly see in her marks the effort that it took to achieve this level of renunciatory rigor. The result is that each canvas unfolds as a story, the drama of the human mind straining towards a state of clarity. And the movement between each canvas testifies to how such clarity is a process perpetually pursued, not a state finally achieved. They are solitary paintings, maybe, but they communicate beautifully.
[Martin and Ad Reinhardt] shared in interest in the spiritual utility of art, an interest that, in her case, had distinct, if informal, Buddhist underpinnings. There were other, greater differences. For Reinhardt, art was a speculative, philosophical endeavor with political dimensions. For Martin — who insisted, problematically in my view, that artists should stay out of the world, have no political responsibilities — art was something more basic: a lifesaver. ‘Banish punishing thoughts’ could be the motto of her late career.”
In The Telegraph, Aliastair Sooke wrote that Martin’s paintings are like visual memories.
Her paintings are like residues of things that were once much clearer and more resolved. They function like visual memories: traces of perturbed states of mind that have now passed. Yes, Martin was the mistress of serenity and contemplation – but the tranquility of her art represents the calm following a storm.
Rachel Cooke, who reviewed the show in The Guardian, seems to be the only critic who didn’t see value in Martin’s endeavor. She found the sameness of the canvases boring:
What’s striking about these canvases is the way they’re diminished by being in company with each other. A painting such as Untitled #17 (1980) – hazy stripes of varying widths whose fluttering boundaries are marked in graphite – might hold the interest in isolation: you could get lost in it, like fog. But set among its peers, it disappears. The Islands I-XII (1979) is a group of seven almost-white paintings – each one is marked with some barely discernible pencil lines – that Martin considered a single piece and which the curators deem to be among her “most silent works”. They say this as though it were high praise, but I experienced them as something muffled, frustration and boredom in fierce competition to hurry me from the room.
Holland Cotter worried in his NY Times review that people unaccustomed to abstract art would wonder what to make of Martin’s seemingly simple canvases. He quoted Martin, who suggested that people have to just sit and look, which, in an age as distracted as ours, is undoubtedly one of the hardest things for us to do. What this glorious exhibition makes crystal clear is that the effort is worth making.
“Agnes Martin,” curated by Tracey Bashkoff and Tiffany Bell. The Guggenheim Museum, UES, New York, NY. Through January 11, 2016.