Monday, 21 September 2015

Beauty in the mind: Agnes Martin

“Beauty is the mystery of life.  It is not just in the eye.  It is in the mind.  It is our positive response to life.”  Agnes Martin, 1989. 

How good to be released from all the words of reading and writing: by walking or swimming or looking at art.  Sometimes a particular episode of release works especially well.  This seems to involve (for me) enlarging the space the mind inhabits and changing its shape.  The Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern has just done that. 

Martin painted and drew using grids: square, oblong, huge or small, marked or scored by lines of graphite or occasionally by dots; often filled, in the big paintings, with pale horizontal bands of paint. 

There’s a whole room, the first, of large, squareish paintings, each banded slightly differently in white or lemon, pale peach and shadow-blue.  It took me a few moments to get used to them.  Then I became drawn in to my own interpretation – shadows on sand and baked earth – while also exploring the detail of surface variations.  Below (or above) all this I felt I was being calmed, floated. 

(I’m wary of reproducing images, so am illustrating this with book covers.  If you google images of Agnes Martin paintings there are plenty on gallery websites.) 

From these late paintings the exhibition takes one back to her early work, her journey towards formal abstraction via MirĂ³ here or Rothko there (always fascinating, an artist’s journey to mature style), and through a roughly chronological survey…  

… In grids, mostly.  They are not cold or impersonal.  They seem to give the mind a structure within which it can imagine and explore.  Or a ladder for the imagination.  Light-waves; landscapes as mood – light and shade, sea and sky – mood as mindscape/landscape.  Then there are two rooms of small works which resemble so many different things.  Palimpsests, Linear B, the drawn threadwork we had to make at school, American street plans.  Exercise books, music staves, graph paper (made me think of Rachel Whiteread), timetables, an oven shelf, a grill(e), a street grating with five round-ended oblongs in pale grey.  Unwritten lines.

The mind soon gets accustomed to minor variations, and geekily delights in them; so when confronted by a pair of black pyramids with lime green tips or a huge gold-leaf square on which a grid of horizontal oblongs is scored (‘Friendship’, see here), it’s a shock. 

John Ashbery once described Agnes Martin’s work as “almost distressingly powerful.”

On one grey horizontal banded painting the paint forms liquid patterns as if blown across the canvas.  These look like clouds though clouds, however liquid, never look like that.  

An inner room holds a series of twelve large paintings, The Islands, all variously banded in shades of white.  I was in there on my own…

It was impossible not to search for the human eye, hand, mind in each picture, in a pencilled line’s wobble on the bumpy canvas or a change in the  density of paint.   

There were several paintings which contained wide greyish horizontal bands with a narrow pale strip between each.  Soon I was seeing these as sea with narrow land on the horizon, then sky… then land above the sky, more sea above that, then land, then sky.. like a stuck film reel that flickers between frames.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was brought up on the Saskatchewan plains; she lived for periods in New York and in New Mexico, mostly the town of Taos, 7,000 feet up with mountains one side, desert the other.  She described herself as an abstract expressionist though was described by others as a minimalist.   She was interested in East Asian philosophy and spirituality.  She suffered from schizophrenia.  Her preference was to be solitary but she was part of the New York art scene in the late 50’s and 60’s.  Then she took off on a road trip and settled in a remote part of the New Mexico desert for some years.  More about her here.  She was still working in her 90s. 

I came out looking hard at the floor of wooden planks, at how paving stones intersect, at drains in the gutter.  At the gridmarks of the pedestrian bridge and the Renaissance-city view of St Paul’s it opened up.  At bands of river and land and sky.  At the world. “I paint with my back to the world”, Martin said.

Agnes Martin is at Tate Modern until 11 October.