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

Martin Creed: The Back Door, Park Avenue Armory, New York — ‘Nauseating and dull’

Martin Creed's ‘Half the Air in a Given Space’. Photo: James Ewing©James Ewing

Martin Creed’s ‘Half the Air in a Provided Space’. Photo: James Ewing

I recently watched a video at the Park Avenue Armory of three men and women vomiting — not, I’m sorry to say, the first time I’ve encountered that particular effusion there. In 2013 the Armory hosted Paul McCarthy’s circus of perversion, WS , where mystery fluids stained the walls and rot perfumed the air. Now the complete constructing — the drill hall, the extended string of cubicles off to the side, and the opulent reception rooms — has been turned over to Martin Creed’s The Back Door, one more gut-roiler from the Hauser &amp Wirth gallery’s line-up. This is the sort of occasion that threatens to tip the Armory from an adventure-searching for venue into a bastion of sensationalistic vacuity.

Creed is an impish maestro of yuckiness, deploying chewed meals, urine and faeces in a spirit of cheerful hostility. Confident his perform is “stupid”, he agrees, as if that had been a noble virtue. Confident in the part of the tongue-tied clod, he tends to make pieces so simple-minded, nauseating and dull that they virtually challenge viewers to dismiss them out of hand. Creed’s cry may well be: “Emmerdez les bourgeois!”

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In the darkened drill hall, a gargantuan screen hangs from the ceiling, bisecting the space. Creed projects on to it a sequence of women who seem in well-appointed surroundings — a cosy living room, a fairly park. Each and every time, the camera zooms inexorably towards her expressionless face, reaching a too-intimate close-up. That is when the woman opens her hugely magnified mouth to reveal oozing chunks of meals. The screen goes black, and at the far finish of the area the loading dock gate rises and clangs shut, as if one thing has just been admitted or expelled.

Then the ritual starts again, this time with a various woman. “It’s all about my mum,” Creed announced at a press preview, and certainly his mother, Gisela Creed, seems amongst the masticating ladies. The artist didn’t elaborate, thank goodness, but the piece implies that all girls harbour horrible, repulsive feelings that are continually trying to force their way out into the open.

Working on an epic scale, Creed expresses the feral joy of the child grossing out adults, and at the same time finds a inventive outlet for his anger. Rage is his métier, and he plies each shade from pique to fury. In “Sick Film”, men and women walk in front of the camera, throw up and stroll away from the mess. The soundtrack alone is heave-worthy. “Plenty of folks located it difficult to watch,” he has said. “It made them feel sick. I located it challenging to watch when I produced it, especially the sound. I couldn’t edit it at first because it was too disturbing, but then I got utilized to it.”

Installation from 'Martin Creed: The Back Door'. Photo: James Ewing©James Ewing

Installation from ‘Martin Creed: The Back Door’. Photo: James Ewing

I suppose I also could sooner or later turn into inured to Creed’s deadpan aggressiveness, but I’d rather not. In one video a man approaches a flowerpot and kicks it. In one more a lady squats and pees, leaving a puddle on the floor. In a third a voice screams a widespread but unprintable insult over and over, although we stare at a black rectangle of screen. Creed shows these films in cramped bunkers, turning art into aversion therapy. It pains me to create such bilious criticism, not due to the fact I’m being unfair, but since this is precisely the reaction he hopes to provoke.

He’s a virtuoso of irritation. The piece that won him the Turner Prize in 2001, “The Lights Going on and Off” (in which lights go on and off), so infuriated a single Tate Britain visitor (an artist herself) that she smuggled a carton of eggs into the gallery and hurled them at the walls. Creed had found the trick of coaxing visceral responses from banal ideas, spinning a profession out of shallow gestures.

That makes him the heir to a fine tradition. “The beginnings of Dada have been not the beginnings of art, but of disgust,” the poet Tristan Tzara wrote practically a century ago, and Creed is nonetheless splashing in that very same mud pit of nihilistic ire. He continues to be concerned the dead-finish query that Marcel Duchamp addressed generations ago with his urinals and bicycle wheels: “What is art?”

“I would not disagree with me not becoming an artist, due to the fact I don’t know what art is,” Creed has said, mimicking Duchamp’s self-deprecatory stance. “I’m not creating art, because art would seem to me to be in the eye of the beholder.”

Martin Creed, 'Work No 800' (2007). Photo: Ellen Page Wilson©Ellen Web page Wilson

Martin Creed, ‘Work No 800’ (2007). Photo: Ellen Page Wilson

The mystery is that some of these beholders shower him with prizes anyway, as if he have been brushing scales from their eyes as an alternative of recycling ancient insights, clumsily. Duchamp pushed the boundaries of art by forcing his audience to doubt its sacredness. He performed his sleight-of-hand with out pretension, and took credit for seeing, not making, the elegance in humble objects. (Creed’s contribution to that act of transfiguration: a crumpled ball of paper.)

Dada and, later, the Fluxus movement propelled that spirit of discovery into wickedly open-ended performances. Creed’s updates on this heritage have a tinge of violent desperation. He has the lid on a grand piano lift silently, then slam shut, over and more than once again. Each and every time, I half anticipated a spiteful cackle to emerge from its innards.

My churlishness lifted briefly as I was wading via a roomful of white balloons in “Half the Air in a Offered Space” and I was momentarily in tune with his toddler humour. Then, as I battled my way towards the exit, I came upon a knot of claustrophobic fellow-sufferers, wincing at each and every loud pop! Why, I wondered, did Creed look so intent on curdling joy into misery? The answer arrived in the type of a little ensemble of musicians who wander from area to area. I heard the singer warble what must truly be the exhibition’s tag line: “Everybody needs a person to hate. It’s never also late.” Creed could be performing his guests a service by focusing their free of charge-floating odium on to himself.

To August 7,

Martin Creed. Photo: Hugo Glendinning©Hugo Glendinning

Martin Creed. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

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Section: Arts