Tate Modern, London
3 June – 11 October 2015
by JANET McKENZIE
Agnes Martin (1912-2004) at Tate Modern is the first major retrospective exhibition, since her death, of one of the most esteemed artists of the 20th century. Her works are composed of the simplest formal elements – ruled pencil lines and a limited number of forms, including grids, stripes and, occasionally, circles, triangles and squares, painted in a reduced palette on square canvases. The austere painting anticipated and helped to define minimalism. The stillness achieved in artistic terms is the polar opposite of the severe psychological crises that characterised her personal life. In late 1961, following a catatonic episode in New York, she was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia. She had the condition intermittently for the rest of her life, much of which was spent in the American South-west. In Taos, New Mexico, she led a solitary existence, claiming that she painted with her back to the world. At the time of her death, aged 92, it is said that she had not read a newspaper in half a century.
Martin’s personal life played a significant role in the choices she made as an artist, so it is fitting that, to coincide with the Tate retrospective, Thames and Hudson has published a superb new study by Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art. For those familiar with Princenthal’s writing, it will come as no surprise that the study of Martin is difficult to put down, based as it is on great insight into the artist’s life and the greater issues that pertain to a female artist of her generation. Eleanor Heartney’s 2007 book After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art has also become an indispensable publication for any scholar or artist trying to achieve a well-balanced view of culture and art practice since 1970. The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power 1973–1991, (2011), edited by Princenthal, in keeping with its excellent title, progresses the debate at a profound level, enabling further access to the careers of key women artists.
In her introduction to Agnes Martin, Princenthal defines abstraction poignantly in the context of the Tate exhibition: “To be abstracted is to be some distance from the material world. It is a form of local exaltation but also, sometimes, of disorientation, even disturbance.” Martin did not achieve recognition until she was in her 40s. The curators, Frances Morris from Tate Modern and Tiffany Bell have set out to redress the fact that Martin is a major, but underrepresented, artist, who is not well known in Europe. The exhibition is the latest in a series of important exhibitions of the work of female artists at Tate Modern, which has included Eva Hesse in 2002, Frida Kahlo in 2005, Louise Bourgeois and Doris Salcedo in 2007, Yayoi Kusama in 2012, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Mira Schendel in 2013, and Marlene Dumas and Sonia Delaunay in 2015. A superb, fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the Martin retrospective: a scholarly appraisal of her career.
The Tate Modern exhibition spans Martin’s career from the early 50s to the last drawing made before her death. She destroyed a great deal of her earlier work, and throughout her career was a severe critic of her own work, discarding any she was not completely satisfied with. Irrespective of her vulnerability, in artistic terms she was exacting and forceful.
She was born in a prairie farming community in Saskatchewan, western Canada, in 1912, the same year as Jackson Pollock and John Cage, both of whom would come to represent key aspects of her sensibility. Martin’s parents (whose own parents had migrated from Scotland) took up land in what would become the township of Macklin, around 1906, when a great wave of settlers arrived from the UK and the US. The frontier mentality evolved from the anxiety of moving to an alien world and from the dashed hopes brought by farming failures, poverty and extreme isolation. Martin was one of four children. Her father died when she was three, shortly before her younger brother was born. Their existence became even tougher as their mother sought to raise the family single-handed; their life also became increasingly peripatetic, marked by resilience and resourcefulness, qualities that would come to characterise the artist’s own adult life. There is little doubt that Martin’s visionary work developed in response to the almost abstract landscape of the prairie and to the harsh reality of pioneer life. When, in 1967 she left New York on an extended road trip, ceasing to paint for a number of years, before settling outside Taos (where she had worked as a teacher in the 50s), she was choosing an austere and rigorous life dictated by the environment and defined by the elements. Georgia O’Keeffe had already famously moved to New Mexico by 1940 and other artists and writers, such as DH Lawrence, Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko, had chosen to visit and live there. A mystical life was sought in New Mexico, for some a poetic life, but there also co-existed among the artists and writers there, a strong sense of sense of self and of artistic purpose.
In 1989, Martin recalled: “When I first made a grid, I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, ‘This is my vision.’” I have quoted David Shi’s, The Simple Life previously for essays and lectures on minimalism, and I continue to choose to quote him in the manner in which the author identifies the roots of minimalism in American life:
“Though a failure as a societal ethic, simplicity has nevertheless exercised a powerful influence on the complex patterns of American culture. As a myth of national purpose and as a program for individual conduct, the simple life has been a perennial dream and a rhetorical challenge, displaying an indestructible vitality even in the face of repeated defeats. It has, in a sense, served as the nation's conscience, reminding Americans of what the founders had hoped they would be and thereby providing a vivifying counterpoint to the excesses of materialist individualism.”1
Tate Modern’s exhibition confirms Martin as one of the foremost painters of the 20th century. It traces her career from early experiments to her final works in 2004. She established her career as an artist in New York, living in the Coenties Slip neighbourhood alongside fellow artists Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and Lenore Tawney. The exhibition reveals Martin’s lesser-known early paintings and her experimental work then, including The Garden (1958). It present works in different media and formats that used found objects and geometric shapes, before she began making her visionary pencilled grids on large, square canvases. Tate Modern brings together seminal examples of these works from the 1960s, such as Friendship (1963), to the beautiful poetic works made in her old age.
By 1967, Martin had been embraced by those artists who would come to be known as minimalists. Donald Judd had reviewed two of her exhibitions. Carl Andre laid metal plates in grids on the floor that resembled Martin’s paintings. In 1966, Martin was included in two early shows of art that gathered examples of the new approach: Systemic Painting, curated by Lawrence Alloway at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, and 10, featuring work chosen by Robert Smithson at the Dwan Gallery. But Martin understood her work to be different and, after leaving New York, she consciously departed from minimalism: for example, her work never appeared to be industrial, in terms of the material or production, as did the work of Judd or Sol LeWitt. She continued to “hand make” her paintings, allowing slight imperfection to refer perhaps to human fallibility. Nature was always a point of reference, but not in a representational manner. Her paintings evoke thoughts or emotions beyond the physical, such as memory. She explained in an interview in the New York Times: “The value of art is in the observer. When you find out what you like, you’re really finding out about yourself. Beethoven’s music is joyous. If you like his music, you know that you like to be joyful. People who look at my painting say that it makes them happy, like the feeling when you wake up in the morning. And happiness is the goal, isn’t it?”
1. The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David Shi, published by OUP, 1985, page 278.
• Following its showing at Tate Modern, Agnes Martin will travel to Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York.