Since its inception, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City has always been an inherently tricky location in which to hold an artist’s career retrospective. The building’s ascendant design almost imposes a linear narrative. Regardless of the show, the sequence that the art is arranged in is ultimately bound to an overarching story. Often this story goes from an artist’s beginning to his or her later years. The more inventive of curators will hone in on themes and motifs in the artist’s life and works. Breaking up the show along a certain set of concepts or ideas, allows them to become a visual biography of that artist’s life
The best shows at the Guggenheim will harness the building’s propulsive energy. They do so while breaking up the retrospective in ways that echo the essence of the artist on display. Nonetheless, never has an artist felt as present in a show at the museum as Agnes Martin does. The viewer gains new insight with each passing painting. Curators Tiffany Bell and Tracey Bashkoff seem intent on ensuring a sense of poetry in this “historical” portrait. They tease out significant moments while maintaining a holistic sensibility. Every painting of Martin’s sheds light on another facet on this famously reclusive artist. Bell and Bashkoff elevate both the well-known and the obscure to the same level. This is so that the audience can truly get to “know” Martin. They make a convincing case for the artist’s emotional minimalism having increased relevance in our detached, maximalist times.
As an artist, Martin was responsible for crafting her own language and a style wholly her own. Martin is an anomaly in so many ways. As unbelievable as it sounds, Martin was in her thirties when she began her training as an artist. She began finding her definitive voice in her mid-forties. She emerged as an artist at a curious time when Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme. Martin was happy to borrow ideas from both her predecessors and her peers, ultimately settling on the expressive geometry of Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly. Martin retained sensitivity to lines and curves in her many grid-based paintings. She likely adopted artist Lenore Tawney’s style of weaved sculptures. Martin’s general and assumed association lies with Minimalism. The movement emphasized geometry, repetition, and working with what one had. However, Martin’s painting always retained the raw emotionality that define Abstract Expressionism. The artist calls herself a “late, late Abstract Expressionist.” She applied the rigid yet poetic East Asian philosophy she was so beholden to in visual form, marrying a playful yet disciplined approach to geometric forms with an uncanny sensitivity to color and texture, effortlessly fusing these two styles into work that connects with viewers on both a guttural and technical level.
Contemplating Martin's fifty-year-long career one can truly see how nuanced of an individual Martin was. Martin’s personal issues and struggles helped her to pioneer a style of painting once instantly recognizable yet wholly transformational. Her work elicits an otherworldly sensation in the viewer. One may find himself meditating while taking in one of Martin's paintings as each second reveals a new detail or element that flickers and either fades. These may be a product of the mind’s eye, or reveals a subtle tone in the rich admixture of paint that Martin would blend.
Martin began her career making abstract landscapes. It seems almost fitting that the show starts with peak-Martin in the form of a cluster of twelve paintings from 1979 entitled "The Islands" (I-XII). Displayed on twelve seemingly white-painted canvases, lie horizontal strips of different heights forming an unusual grid shape. Viewing Martin’s work is much like viewing a large body of water or a massive chasm. As Martin herself once said in regards to how her work should be viewed: “You go there and sit and look.”
It is in simply looking that the transcendent quality of her work comes through. The viewer begins to notice pallid hues of blue that weren’t there for the first twenty seconds. Once the viewer is tuned into that frequency, one can't but help to wonder what other colors Martin may have hidden in the canvas. Martin’s uncanny ability of replicating the sensations of disbelief, tranquility, can come from taking in a natural landscape. While nature might not be literally present within her work, its essence is imbued in every brush stroke.
Insightful walls didactics point out that "The Islands" were a high-water mark of a second stage of a career that had already achieved remarkable heights. Martin attended University of New Mexico and Columbia University to study painting and arts education. She saw her career as an artist truly taking off around the year of 1959. Martin was heavily inspired by Abstract Expressionism, spending much of the 50s painting abstract landscapes. Martin returned to New York at the end of the 50s following one of her many sojourns to New Mexico. Martin’s social life reflected the dominant artistic trends of the day. At one point, she counted Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenbeg, and Kelly as her neighbors. These artists provided artistic solidarity, and many of them were gay like Martin. Martin, a lesbian woman in a mostly male-dominated scene, suffered from schizophrenia. She is something of a miraculous aberration in the status quo.
Martin’s Principle breakthrough from this period was her discovery of the grid. While retaining the textured sensibility of Abstract Expressionism’s colorful hues, Martin dulled them to more earthen tones on the canvas. She then emptied out her canvass of any clutter and erected an overarching grid. This modified her work against what could best be described as minimalist landscapes. As Martin herself put it, she did not remove nature from her work so much as analogized it.
This analogizing of nature at its very essence, is perfectly encapsulated in Martin’s 1963 painting “Night Sea.” at first, it looks like a solid blue color field framed by an intricate grid. Once the viewer allows her or himself to simply look, a whole world comes to life. A monochromatic color field belies nuanced brushstrokes. Hints of other colors that may or may not be there, flicker in and out of existence. It is as if the canvas itself was sentient. Perhaps the most significant aspect of “Night Sea” is found within the grid itself. At first glance, it is perfect in its construction. However, when looking at the lines drawn by Martin, one begins to notice the imperfections. It’s almost as if the grid becomes a symbol for the ultimately impossible quest by humanity to gain mastery over nature. This realm contains more mysteries and more power than most of us can even comprehend.
Throughout her llife, Martin sought only solitude. Martin’s schizophrenia allowed her art to emerge out in creative and productive bursts. These were often followed by long periods of inactivity. As she once said in a 1976 interview, “You see, I have a visual image. But then to actually accurately put it down is a long, long way from just knowing what you’re going to do. Because the image comes into your mind after what it is. The image comes only to help you to know what it is. You’re really feeling what your real response is. And so, if you put down this image, you know it’s going to remind other people of the same experience.”
In the above quote, it’s as if Martin is describing a metaphysical or divine experience. She can put aside human desires and emotions in order to rid herself of her humanity. She becomes a conduit through which to “actually accurately” recreate our perception and experience of nature. In confining herself to a life alone in New Mexico, Martin became a hermit of sorts. Closing herself off from society and her own desires, helps Martin to tap into something greater than herself. Nature was the divinity Martin sought to channel.
In making one’s way up the museum’s seven floors of Martin paintings, including some gorgeous posters that she designed, the paintings almost begin to turn into foliage themselves. Plants and trees planted alongside the visitor’s trek, as one makes his or her way through the two distinct phases of Martin’s career. At times, the show can start to feel like an endurance test more than an exhibition. While rounding the third and fourth floors, comments of "This is boring" and "I don't get it" darted about. It can be exhausting to take in close to a hundred paintings that on first blush all look like variations of one another.
Around the sixth floor of the Guggenheim, the show’s narrative reaches its climax in an incidental triptych. Martin is displayed at the height of her powers. Even the most disinterested could be jolted awake by the sheer emotionality on display.
The heart of this show lies in a three-painting suite—“Loving Love" (1999), “Gratitude” (2001), “Blessings” (2000). Painted over a three-year period, each enchants on its own. It is when the pieces are viewed together that one really grasps the kernel of Martins genius. Up until her death in 2004 at the age of ninety-two, Martin continued to paint. As the above work demonstrates, she was in full possession of her powers. The horizontal-bar motif was a hallmark of her paintings. The design shows a painter perhaps more willing to open herself up to the world. Martin looks past the macro and delves into the micro, into the realm of feeling itself. Martin’s Abstract leanings harmonize perfectly with her Minimalist framework. Each row is lovingly painted with muted and complex admixtures, lending each painting a degree of depth. At the center of the three paintings lies “Gratitude”. The middle band of the painting provides a gravitational pull that draws in viewer’s eyes. This piece serves as an undeniable testament to Martin’s ability to tap into such psychological depth while utilizing minimal elements.
John Gruen, the New York art critic interviewed Martin. In the above cited quote, he described her way of talking as that of an “oracle.” Martin may not have foreseen the paradigm shift she was instrumental in orchestrating. Nevertheless, this show both affirms her minimalist methodology, while reasserting the role of Abstract Expressionism. In this way, Martin devised an aesthetic lexicon that could capture what words and most art failed to: the unspeakable grandeur of nature. It’s undeniable that she possessed a fixation with looking beyond the superficial. Martin was able to express the ineffable. She expresses the sheer emotionality of Abstract Expressionism, through the staid geometric framework of Minimalism. In that sense, she’s far more than an oracle; she is transcendent.