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Agnes Martin: Before the Grid offered a rare opportunity to examine a selection of Martin’s artwork made before the iconic grid paintings she began around 1960. Martin destroyed much of her early work; for her, only the grids successfully embodied the authorial detachment and holistic union of painterly elements she sought in her practice. Despite the obvious curatorial challenges caused by Martin’s acts of destruction, the exhibition’s organizers, Tiffany Bell and Jina Brenneman, presented a visually rich selection of approximately two dozen paintings and works on paper depicting standard modernist genres—a still life, landscapes, portraits, and Surrealist abstractions—as well as some exquisite precursors to Martin’s later geometric compositions. Many works in the exhibition were borrowed from private collections in the Rocky Mountain region and in New York City, where they were preserved by friends, family members, and early patrons who evaded Martin’s efforts to take them back in order to dispose of them. The exhibition catalogue features color reproductions, a concise chronology, and an insightful and nuanced essay by Richard Tobin.
Martin was a notoriously private artist, yet Bell and Brenneman successfully introduced biographical content into the exhibition using light-handed touches. The opening at the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico, coincided with the centennial of Martin’s birth, and its traveling schedule—from the Harwood to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, to the University of New Mexico Art Museum (UNM) in Albuquerque—loosely echoed Martin’s own repeated circuit from New Mexico to New York and back again during formative moments of her artistic career. At UNM, where Martin was a student from 1946–47, the exhibition was installed in a gallery named after Martin’s professor and mentor, Raymond Jonson—a windowless, subterranean space that enhanced the feeling of intimacy. A single black-and-white reproduction depicted Martin in her New Mexico studio circa 1955, warily looking up at the camera and turned away from a number of carefully stacked canvases, now likely all lost.
In knowledge of Martin’s opinion of her early work, which the organizers shared via a sole wall text, visiting this exhibition was an especially voyeuristic experience akin to reading someone else’s diary. Because so few of Martin’s early works exist, viewers were offered only one or two examples from her various stylistic phases. The voids in Martin’s artistic/biographical narrative accentuated the uniqueness of each work and gave even obvious student exercises a jewel-like quality. We see Martin exploring the formal principles behind Paul Cézanne’s studies of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Modigliani’s portraits, and expressionistic still lifes, then developing her own iterations of biomorphic abstraction and action painting before working through a series of reductive processes in an effort to cohere line, form, color, and space. At first, these works seemed shockingly different from what has come to be expected from Martin. Closer inspection, however, revealed surprising similarities between Martin’s early work and her later grids, prompting a reconsideration of the artistic and philosophical motives behind Martin’s mature output, especially its common associations with Minimalism and Zen.
Martin first moved to New York in 1941 to attend Columbia University’s Teachers College, where, by 1954, she eventually earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts and arts administration while periodically returning to New Mexico. Her longest period in New York occurred from 1957 to 1967, after Betty Parsons agreed to represent her on the condition she return to the city, at which point she moved into a studio at Coenties Slip alongside Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, James Rosenquist, and other artists of the post-New York School generation. It was in New York during the late 1950s that Martin first engaged with Zen, and around the same time that she distilled the visual properties of her medium, introducing a subtler palette, simplified geometric compositional arrangements, and a synthesis of non-descriptive line and form, earning her an association with Minimalism. Both chronologically and philosophically, however, Martin was more closely related to the Abstract Expressionists. She remained committed to the notion of art as a combination of line, form, and color transferred to a two-dimensional support, in traditional mediums such as pencil, ink, or oil (in the 1960s Martin would begin using acrylic). The tactility of the support is an important characteristic of Martin’s work. Furthermore, like the Abstract Expressionists, her work derives from experiential sources, translated into intuitive experiences through the language of abstraction. In her mature work, Martin engaged with the notion of the Platonic ideal only to negate it; she relied on fundamental geometry and symmetry, but retained a handcrafted quality by allowing her material process to remain visible, thus creating a subtle dissonance.
This dissonance, in the face of Martin’s compulsion toward “an ultimate system of information,” as Lizzie Borden described it in a 1973 article on Martin’s early work, is evident even among the earliest pieces in Before the Grid (Lizzie Borden, “Early Work,” Artforum 11, no. 8 [April 1973]: 39). Portrait of Daphne Vaughn (ca. 1947–49), for example, was likely made as an exercise in color, texture, and space using the medium of encaustic, rather than an attempt at an actual likeness. Anatomical details are noticeably absent, and the sitter’s right hand, extending from an impossibly long forearm, has been sacrificed for the sake of continuing the graphic pattern of her smock. In an undated self-portrait, likely from the same period, Martin omitted arms and hands altogether; there are no signs of artistic identity, and her torso is concealed beneath a modest frock indicated by a measured row of vertical stripes across a flat field of blue—a triumph of geometry over anatomy that foreshadows Martin’s dedication to grids and bands over a decade later.
In two mountain landscapes (untitled, ca. 1946, and New Mexico Mountain Landscape, Taos, ca. 1947), Martin translated verdant peaks and tracts of barren desert into blocky segments of green, blue, and brown. A more vibrant desert landscape in watercolor and ink (untitled [Landscape South of Santa Fe, NM], 1947) displays energetic draftsmanship and more complex hues, but it retains a separation of color that is typical in Martin’s early work. Of all the formal elements Martin grappled with in her early years, color appears to have posed the biggest challenge for her. It is often thickly applied in discrete areas, giving the 1940s works a heaviness that Martin would only shed as she moved toward more subtle, monochromatic palettes in the next decade. Rather, the strength of Martin’s earliest pieces lies in their compositional structures and Martin’s ability to convey an imposing sense of scale even in diminutive size. (Martin would verbally affirm her dominant interest in composition in her famous 1972 manifesto, “The Untroubled Mind”: “People think that painting is about color. It’s mostly composition” (Flash Art 41 [June 1973]: 6–8). An untitled still life in oil on canvas (1948)—a swirling mass of brightly colored brushstrokes measuring 18” x 14”—reveals Martin’s urge to work edge-to-edge on the canvas, a feature that characterizes her mature art.
By the 1950s Martin was working in an abstract style, with biomorphic and totemic imagery that reveals the influence of the late Surrealism of Matta or Joan Miró, whose paintings Martin could have seen at the Museum of Modern Art. Martin carried this aesthetic into a group of accomplished prints, which the UNM Art Museum exhibited alongside a 1952 automatist drawing in a double-sided frame that allowed viewers to examine the way Martin cleverly reworked the verso. By adding eyes and an oval resembling a speech bubble to primeval plant-like forms, in one turn of a page Martin moved from Jungian iconography toward more cartoon-like imagery with an implied narrative. This animated quality appears the following year in The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (1953), a painting whose thin, tensile lines and combination of geometric and biomorphic abstract shapes against a chromatically simplified field recall Miró’s The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) (1924), rendered on an Abstract Expressionist scale. An untitled work of 1953 features the floating hieroglyphic shapes and atmospheric quality also found in the work of William Baziotes, who had an exhibition of recent work at Kootz Gallery in spring 1952, shortly before Martin graduated with her MA degree. Back in Taos, where Martin spent most of 1953–57, Martin was further encouraged toward abstraction by a tight-knit community of artists that included Beatrice Mandelman, Louis Ribak, and Clay Spohn.
In the mid-1950s Martin finally hit her stride, producing a number of successful works in an Abstract Expressionist vein. An untitled painting (1954) measuring 36 1/8” x 47 3/4”, from the collection of the UNM Art Museum, was a turning point in the exhibition—one last convulsion of Abstract Expressionist gesture before Martin settled into a more muted palette of cooler, lighter tones and the fundamental geometric structure that would characterize her late work. The strong hues that once overshadowed Martin’s skill in rendering exquisite lines and atmospheric space begin to disappear, along with the last remnants of figuration: at the top of the composition, a pair of eyes sits above a triangular area that evokes a gaping mouth. This work is also significant in that it demonstrates Martin’s process, in underlayers of drawing and white oil applied in varying densities. Other works recall Robert Motherwell or the collages of Conrad Marca-Relli, such as Autumn Watch (1954), in which flat, irregular shapes are fitted together like pieces of a puzzle against a gridded compositional structure that suggests a blueprint for future works.
After relocating to New York City in 1957, Martin, having exorcised bold colors, temporarily abandoned line. The Spring (1957), a painting measuring 70″ × 70″, anticipates the square format of the 6′ × 6′ canvases she would soon adopt for the grid paintings—a size she chose for its relation to the human body. In their large, stacked rectangles and explorations of scale, The Spring and a related untitled work from a private collection suggest the influence of Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman. The reductive processes that Martin employed to reach these two works coincided with her engagement with Zen, an influence that she has admitted. The austere palette and vast, monochrome planes in The Spring, for example, correlate to Zen principles of detachment, emptiness, and perpetuity. However, the progressive stylistic refinement seen in Before the Grid suggests that Zen provided a convenient philosophical armature on which to model an already emerging aesthetic based on flattened planes, geometry, repetition, and large scale, evidenced as early as the 1940s in such works as the portraits and still life.
In the last three works in the exhibition—two vertical line drawings in oil and graphite on canvas (1959) and The Islands (ca. 1961) in acrylic and graphite on linen—the busy lines of Martin’s Abstract Expressionist paintings have settled into delicate, geometric units of mathematical regularity. The Islands features a grid in graphite overlaid with a staccato pattern of short, white acrylic brushstrokes. The effect is one of a weaving, echoing the material constitution of the linen support. Martin implies continuum by extending the graphite grid beyond the central, white-painted area, but then contrasts it with a continuous white line painted around the margin, which visually arrests the sense of outward expansion and accentuates the objectness of the work. In each of these examples, the handcrafted quality and tactility of the support introduce a new complexity in Martin’s work that communicates the ideal of perfection without literally trying to achieve it. Like the voids in the exhibition resulting from the destruction of her early work, this aesthetic similarly alludes to an unattainable whole, reinforcing the enigmatic quality that surrounds her biographical and artistic narrative.
PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
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