2016-10-06 22:06:05
Art Review: The Joy of Reading Between Agnes Martin’s Lines

To be honest, I wonder what a lot of people see in abstract painting. I love it, the idea of it and the experience of it, because it’s been in my life for decades. But what if you don’t have that information? How do you approach an art empty of figures and evident narratives? How do you find out what, if anything, is in it for you? What do you do to make it your own?

“You go there and sit and look.”

That was the terse advice that the painter Agnes Martin gave to anyone coming to her paintings, more than 100 of which are now floating up the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum rotunda in the most out-of-this-world-beautiful retrospective I’ve seen in this space in years. Her art is as abstract as abstract gets, yet her presence in it is palpable. So is her story, once you know how to read it.

Martin, who died in 2004, was right about learning by sitting and looking, though, in the case of her work, standing is even better, because you can move around and take it in from different perspectives. View her paintings from several feet away, and their surfaces — whitish, pinkish, grayish, brownish — look hazily blank, as if they needed a dusting or a buffing. Move closer, and complicated, eye-tricking, self-erasing textures come in and out of focus. Move in very close, and you find that the surfaces are marked with hand-drawn lines, often faint but always firm, and regularly spaced, like the lines of a musical staff, or an accounting ledger, or a school notebook.

These are the basic elements of Martin’s art, and it took time, about 45 years, for her to find and refine them. She was born in 1912 in rural Saskatchewan, Canada (“the land of no opportunity,” she called it). Her father, a wheat farmer, died when she was 2. Her mother, harsh but resourceful, supported the family, though, by Martin’s account, it was her maternal grandfather who gave her a childhood. A gentle Calvinist, he read inspirational books to her, among them “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Its tale of determination, despondency and hard-won reward set her path.

The path, which took her away from home early, was peppered with byways, detours and emergency stops. Martin once wrote, in her Palmer-method cursive, a long list of jobs she’d worked since her youth, among them playground director, tennis coach, baker’s helper, ice cream packer, receptionist, janitor, dishwasher (three times), waitress (many times), warden to “criminal boys,” and manager of “five Hindus baling hay.” Somewhere in the summing-up there is, no doubt, a mention of art instructor, because that’s what she studied to be in 1941 at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. A year later, at 30, she decided not just to teach art, but also to make it, to be an artist.

She started out painting portraits and landscapes, but was dissatisfied with the results. (She said she concluded every year of her early career with a bonfire.) The retrospective — which originated at the Tate Modern and is organized in New York by Tiffany Bell, a guest curator, and Tracey Bashkoff of the Guggenheim — begins in the mid-1950s, when she had moved on to abstract paintings of organic forms, probably done in New York or in Taos, N.M., where she had set down roots.

In 1957 in Taos, she met the visiting dealer Betty Parsons, who agreed to show her in New York on the condition that Martin, then 45, move back there. She did and settled way downtown, in a small community of mostly younger loft-dwelling artists near Wall Street. There she shared a building with Ellsworth Kelly and James Rosenquist. Among her immediate neighbors were Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, Ann Wilson and Lenore Tawney, to whom she was particularly close. (They formed a kind of book club of two, reading Blake, Lao Tzu, Gertrude Stein and St. Teresa aloud to each other.) Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg lived nearby. Barnett Newman had a studio in the vicinity.

The situation had a heady, outsider feel. Several of the artists were, like Martin, gay. All were intent on distancing themselves from an art world establishment defined by gestural expressionism. Probably influenced by both the geometric painting Newman and Kelly were doing, and by Tawney’s extraordinary open-warp weavings, Martin began to develop an art of squared-off shapes and linear detail.

The 1960 picture called “White Flower,” with its tight mesh of a grid filled in with stitch-like white dashes, is a standout piece from this time. (Donated to the Guggenheim by Tawney in 1963, it was the first Martin painting to enter a museum collection.) Darkly scintillating, it looks as soft and light as cloth, but it is the product of exacting, perfectionist labor. It came at a time of ambitious experimentation for Martin, but also of profound emotional confusion, manifested in bouts of schizophrenia that required hospitalization.

In 1967 she abruptly changed her life. She gave away her brushes and paints, bought a truck and a camper, and headed out of New York. She spent much of the next two years living in trailer parks across the country until she finally arrived back in New Mexico, which she would make her permanent home.

In the desert there, she built herself an adobe house and studio, and in 1974, after a seven-year hiatus, returned to making art, beginning with a series of prints titled “On a Clear Day,” composed of plain grids and stacks of ungridded horizontal lines, black on white, like words on a clean slate.

In most of the paintings that followed, in the prolific second half of her career, horizontal stripes and bands of varying widths and alignments predominate. In late 1979 and the early 1980s, delicate colors appear: Mondrian primaries diluted, in acrylic washes, to near-subliminal tints. Then comes a series of pictures, all 6 feet by 6 feet, in shades of black and gray. A group of a dozen paintings, collectively titled “The Islands,” are all white. Or so they look. But if you spend concentrated time with them, looking and looking, you start to see color emerging: faint mirages of blue, like glimpses of sky in an ocean fog.

Martin’s earlier paintings were grounded in references to nature and its phenomena. The work in the post-1974 phase of her career is about art itself as a kind of natural source, as a producer of perceptual experience.

With pencil lines and paint, her pictures make your eyes go funny in gently hypnotic ways; make you doubt what you’re seeing, or if you’re seeing anything, while delivering tentative revelations.

All of this makes the work extremely difficult to capture accurately in photographs, which may be one simple way to explain why her art has never commanded the popular attention that her generational peers attract.

Maybe more important, it’s just hard to know what to do with her, how to pitch her. In the 1970s, she was lumped in with Minimalists, but that never worked. She has no place in the materialist, hardware-shop world of Carl Andre and Donald Judd. She insisted on calling herself a “late, late Abstract Expressionist,” and you sort of see what she means with her always evident brushwork and slightly tremulous lines. But the existentialist drama promoted by that movement, careening between uplift and despair, was dangerous territory for her. Her art — controlled, quiet, tough, painstakingly poised — is, in a sense, designed to avoid it.

It makes sense that the Abstract Expressionist she was personally closest to was another misidentified Minimalist, Ad Reinhardt, whom she met in the 1960s, at the time he was making his “black” paintings.

They shared in interest in the spiritual utility of art, an interest that, in her case, had distinct, if informal, Buddhist underpinnings. There were other, greater differences. For Reinhardt, art was a speculative, philosophical endeavor with political dimensions. For Martin — who insisted, problematically in my view, that artists should stay out of the world, have no political responsibilities — art was something more basic: a lifesaver. “Banish punishing thoughts” could be the motto of her late career.

She worked right to the end, at 92, and said that kept her happy. In 1993 she moved to a retirement residence in Taos, driving to a small studio every morning, seven days a week, and reduced the size of her standard 6-by-6-foot canvases so she could lift them. She revisited certain geometric motifs from her early years. In her final painting, done a few months before she died — it’s in the show — she’s back to horizontal lines: two bands of almost-white enclose a larger one of brushy, turbulent, storm-cloud gray. Her very last work — also here — is a tiny ink drawing of what looks like an opening flower.

By the time you reach these images on the Guggenheim’s top ramp, under its great skylight, you’ve been through a life, and had a lesson in what abstraction can be and can do. There’s a tendency among Martin fans to deify her. A mistake. She was no above-it-all saint. She was a tough thinker and an intense, ultimately self-protected worker. Yet it is true that her art has a lift that makes other art, even closely related, feel earthbound. How do people for whom abstract painting is an unknown language get to experience this lift?

“Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my paintings,” Martin wrote.

If you are such a person, and you are at the Guggenheim, by all means take a seat.