Agnes Martin, Guggenheim Museum, New York — evaluation

Agnes Martin at work in 1960 © Alexander Liberman Photography Archive/J. Paul Getty Trust

Sooner or later we all require to shut down or run away for a little while. Our frenzied, image-strobed, media-glutted existence demands the occasional dose of voluntary boredom. But the Guggenheim’s Agnes Martin retrospective suggests that escape can grow to be another type of imprisonment. Entering the exhibition feels like stepping out of the globe and into a sensory deprivation chamber. Outdoors, wisps of music and children’s tumult ricochet off the sun-speckled trees of Central Park. Inside, all is sepulchral silence. Chaste canvases advance a single right after the other along the spiral ramp, a parade of parallel lines, appropriate angles and shades of not-quite-white. Martin utilised this ruthlessly decreased simplicity to uncover freedom from life’s hoarse thrum. Whether or not you will also depends on what you are fleeing.

Agnes Martin’s ‘Buds’ (c1959) © Titze Collection

Over a career that spanned most of the 20th century, Martin spurned events, figures, trends and noise, retreating as an alternative to a repertoire of whitewashed mesh. She employed paint sparingly, was stingy with colour, and plotted out her surfaces with a ruler and pencil. The outcome was an utterly distinctive vision, a dance of horizontals and verticals that leaps from canvas to canvas, conjuring a flat, open kingdom. With their almost puritanical classicism, her paintings hold stasis and movement in ideal tension. They “have neither object nor space nor line nor anything”, she stated. “They are about light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness.”

Martin was born in 1912 in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, where the land is parcelled into fields and the horizon crosshatched by fence posts, wheat stalks and grain silos. But if the geometry of the plains embedded itself in her psyche at an early age, it merged with an urban matrix when she lived in New York, first as a student in the early 1940s, then from 1957-67. “I want people, when they look at my paintings, to have the same feelings they knowledge when they look at landscape,” she mentioned.

And yet to my eye, she is at one particular with the modern metropolis. Following a handful of hours’ immersion, I started to detect her spirit in the monochrome regularity of ventilation grilles, tiled subway stations, receding stairs, storefront shutters, and so on. She seemed to have brought forth a whole cityscape of shimmering grids.

I’m not generally sympathetic to Martin’s anaemic rigour, but in her 1961 series “The Islands” I glimpsed the elusive sublime that her devotees see in all her perform. Frail pencil lines divide up the 6ft-by-6ft canvas into a barely detectable lattice. Inside each box is a feather-light hint of colour: ochre, yellow, or eggshell. Such subtlety doesn’t show up in reproduction, but in the gallery the nine paintings glow like sunshine on sand.

In New York, Martin discovered some kinship with the Minimalists, but as curators Tiffany Bell and Frances Morris point out, she was not really a single of their quantity. The distinction lies in the good quality of her straight lines, which in “The Islands” and other operates flicker in and out of visibility. Sol Lewitt, one particular of her numerous admirers, drew (or instructed other folks to draw) steady, unbroken pencil lines that approached mechanical perfection. Martin, on the other hand, let them thicken, then disappear, then fade back into tenuous becoming. Get close adequate, and the extremely substance of her work threatens to vanish. This is the opposite of Minimalism, with its implacable shininess and assertive geometries.

In a text panel, the curators intimate that the handmade good quality of her lines and the emotive washes of paint nudged her back towards Abstract Expressionism. If so, she got only partway there. Her emotiveness is private, with none of the strutting drama of her male cohort. Barnett Newman’s “zips” aspired to a heroic presence they dared viewers to look away. Martin’s performs, on the other hand, flirt with non-existence. They appear as evanescent as a dying man’s breath on a handheld mirror.

In 1967, Martin herself vanished, or at least left New York City, which in the art planet at that time amounted to the identical factor. She spent 18 months cruising around in her pick-up truck, and wound up in New Mexico, where she constructed her personal log-and-adobe homestead by hand. She gave an assortment of reasons for dropping out of sight: the building exactly where she and a group of fellow artists lived on Coenties Slip was slated for demolition her pal Ad Reinhardt’s death had left her bereft she wanted an escape from her expanding fame. But as the text panels glancingly mention, Martin also suffered from schizophrenia.

‘Little Sister’ (1962) © Guggenheim Museum

You would in no way know from her rhetoric of beatitude that something was amiss. “When I very first created the grid I happened to be considering of the innocence of trees,” she remarked. “And this grid came into my thoughts and I believed it represented innocence, and I nevertheless do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.” That focused blitheness carries more than into some of her titles, such as “Happy Holiday” and “I Love the Whole World”. She defiantly called her collection of writings The Untroubled Mind.

And yet even so tough she worked to banish demons from her consciousness, they infiltrated her hypnotically obsessive function. Martin waited patiently for inspiration, and when it came, she got out her ruler. Rather of trying to herd her into either the Minimalist or Abstract Expressionist camps, perhaps we should consider of her as an outsider artist, a loner who went off the, um, grid. When she returned to painting in 1973, she confined herself largely to horizontal lines.

If Martin remains a timely giant, it’s partly simply because her reticence gives an alternative, if not an antidote, to the world’s gaudiness and clamour. For her most adoring fans, the Guggenheim’s cornucopia of nearly-nothingness will be precisely the tonic they need to have. But I chafe at the clinical serenity, the aura of smug renunciation. Martin’s paintings do not always irritate me so: singly and in little groups, they give cool relief from far more raucous art. Here, they mass collectively in a whispering choir, imposing their intrusive intimacy.

To January 11,

Section: Arts