On the surface, it feels as though it would be difficult to draw parallels between the works of artists Kerry James Marshall and Agnes Martin. Marshall, whose 35 year retrospective “Mastery” is being mounted with powerful effect at the Met-Brauer, frequently uses a collage style of composition that is at once disarmingly simplistic in appearance and “masterfully” executed to offer up his perspective on the black experience in America.
Martin on the other hand was notoriously skeptical of form. While some art historians have tend to categorize her as a minimalist, she insisted instead that her work was more closely related to the abstract expressionists, many of whom were friends and contemporaries up until her death in 2003. A diagnosed schizophrenic, she was quoted as saying that she felt as if there were “a line in her mind” which divided light and darkness, and that her work only dealt with what was “above that line, never below it.”
Marshall’s work is likewise full of light, a celebration of the African American experience, often challenging traditional notions of western beauty with powerful images of nude black bodies, but he doesn’t shy away from the darkness either. Many of his pieces depict the struggle of the civil rights movement – one of the most striking is Black Painting, which offers glimpse into the darkened bedroom of 21 year old Fred Hampton sitting up in his bed, girlfriend asleep nearby, moments before the FBI raided his home and executed the civil rights activist. The piece is done exclusively in shades of black, which forces the viewer to linger, details emerging as their eyes adjust to the darkness as if they themselves were the ones who just kicked in the door.
Like all great art, both Marshall and Martin’s work are invitations to encounter, to interact. To the casual observer Marshall’s paintings might appear to be a simple and haphazard look into the everyday lives of black American’s, but upon investigation one discovers that they are anything but. Symbolism is packed into every brush stroke for those who are willing to do the necessary work. The 1993 painting “De Style” depicts an iconic scene in the black cannon, a barber’s shop. We see the barber in mid cut, other patrons gathered in the frame with large, outlandish hairdos. There is a confidence to these people, a sense of comfort in their skin, which likely has as much to do with a fresh haircut as it does with an ability to share a communal space. Take a second look and you’ll notice a light fixture that doubles as a halo just above the barber’s head, a half of the famous Muhammad-ali boxer poster at the top of the frame.
In The Garden Project series, and group of paintings done in the mid 90’s, he explores the lives of those living in public works housing. Children at play, adults lounging around a radio, and other scenes from “the projects” offer a look into these neglected communities. Hundreds of randomized white, dripping paint splatters are scattered across this series might confuse the average upper middle class gallery attendee, but would be easily recognized by anyone who grew up in Marshall’s longtime home on the notoriously violent south side of Chicago for what they actually are: bullet holes.
Agnes Martin’s life could almost not have been more different. After a stint in New York followed by a year and a half on the road, she eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico where she embarked on a daily painting practice that lasted for nearly half century, resulting in over 600 works. This retrospective, which was organized by the Tate Modern in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, features almost 100 of these paintings, hung in chronological order throughout the Guggenheim’s six spiral floors. The first room you encounter upon entering sets the tone for what is to come. The space is filled with twelve huge paintings from Martin’s 1979 series The Islands, a collection of canvases painted white with gentle hints of off white embedded in their depths, and delicate graphite lines drawn across their surfaces in gently repeating patterns. If these are the islands, then we are the waters moving around them, and Martin provides an outlet for us to consider a less turbulent possibility of existence.
The rest of the show is equally absorbing, the viewer following the evolution of Martin’s progress as she became more and more confident in her simple exploration of mostly horizontal and vertical patterns, dots, circles, and hard lines. Many of the paintings defy description, drawing their names from meditations on nature, such as Red Bird and The Tree, which seems fitting. Her form was poetry, not narrative. This Rain features a large, purple rectangle floating above an eggshell colored one of equal size, bordered and separated with untouched canvas. The sound of raindrops falling outside of a window during a summer storm seems to conjure itself.
Toward the end of her life Martin’s paintings took on names like Gratitude, and looking at the two solid white and burnt orange stripes crossing horizontally through a field of mint, it is clear that this was a person who truly understood the meaning of that most culturally pervasive word, one that has inspired an army of positivity guru’s and lined the pockets of countless self-help authors. She seems to have found it on her own though, a kind of transcendence of devoted practice. Agnes Martin painted her way into life, and then she painted her way right back out again.
It seems true that while art is important in times of great joy, it might just be more important when the days turn dark and long. An entire generation is coming up in a world that seems to be drifting it’s way back into instability, and they are asking those most human questions. Who am I? Who are we? How should I feel? What can I do?
Perhaps in a nation divided, struggling to map a future together in the wake of the unearthing of so many pains of the past, we should all be seeking out work that both offers a plan of action and also work that provides hope. It seems possible that these two retrospectives are not just the ones that we want; they might be the ones that we need.
October 25, 2016–January 29, 2017
Exhibition Location: The Met Breuer, 3rd and 4th floors
Press Preview: Monday, October 24, 10 am–noon