June 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Agnes Martin poster

Earlier this week, Monday, my partner, Claire, and I went on an overnight stay to London. Amongst a few things we wanted to do on the trip was visit the Agnes Martin exhibition, which is currently on at Tate Modern. We have both known of Agnes Martin for sometime, knowing a little of her painting and being especially taken with her writing.

It takes a great deal of application to make a composition that is totally acceptable. Beethoven’s symphonies with every note composed represent a titanic human effort. To progress in life you must give up things that you do not like. Give up doing things that you do not like to do. You must find things that you do like. Things that are acceptable to your mind. You can see that you will have to have time to yourself to find out what appeals to your mind. While you go along with others you are not really living your life. To rebel against others is just as futile. You must find your way. Happiness is being on the beam with life – to feel the pull of life.

We have, though, been surprised that so few of our friends and acquaintances have heard of her. This under-the-radar profile is mentioned in texts we have read about Martin and the exhibition, and is something that the show is, apparently, hoping to remedy.

I am convinced that the curators will succeed in this endeavour. Going round the Martin exhibition is a profoundly moving and visceral experience. Twice before in recent years, Claire and I have been similarly affected. There was the Rothko exhibition, also at Tate Modern, and the Richard Serra, at the Gagosian Gallery. Each of these three shows affected us in some elemental way. They challenged our sense of ourselves as human beings. I had seen a couple of Rothkos and, of course, the posters are everywhere. But I was not prepared to be surrounded by the paintings and to experience them room after room. I had gone to the show reluctantly and without any expectation. I was utterly confounded.

Richard Serra I know a lot more about. I studied sculpture and was influenced by his work, and his films, like ‘hand catching lead’ from 1968. His work is masculine and monumental, often massive in scale. But it is the details that are also so powerful. The surfaces of the sculptures, the textures, the colours – the colours in the work called ‘Ramble’ (see image below), from 2014, were just stunning. Each inch of each of these huge steel structures was covered in the most beautiful, vivid array of colours, which must all be the product of the sculpture’s making – from cutting or burnishing or grinding. My favourite was a steely-magenta blue – the colour of a placenta. And the edges of each piece of steel, which at first seem so straight and true are, on closer examination, rough and jagged and altered. These works get you right in the gut.

richard serra ramble

The paintings by Agnes Martin are so different to the works of both Rothko and Serra, and yet the effect is just the same. For most of her working life, for some three decades, she painted within a square canvas of 72 inches by 72 inches. On each and every canvas she drew across the surface soft pencil lines marking out a grid, or series of columns or rows, within which she painted washes of colour. She didn’t deviate from these self-imposed limits. Each room in the exhibition was hung with paintings of the same size and framed in the same narrow steel frames. At first glance, the surface of the paintings hardly varied, nor between paintings; yet, when you got up close, the variations were infinite. The soft, hand-drawn pencil lines contain all the motion of her hand, subtly altering weight and direction. The washes of colour are at times thinly applied and at others built up in layers. The edges abut the pencil lines or the edges of the canvas, or don’t quite, coming up short, or break right through. Some of the grids are made up of tiny dots, some of the rows or columns wider.

Agnes Martin

What was so profoundly moving about the exhibition was that I felt the presence of Agnes Martin so strongly at each painting, in each room. She fills the negative space. You could feel the time taken to complete the works, the fact that she had to return again and again, alone, to each work. She had to stand before each canvas for hours, days, with the same limits in front of her – the same lines, the same grids, the same colours. It is almost monastic. She goes to the well time after time. I found it achingly profound. Each time she went back to the well she drew deeper and deeper.

I feel some resonance between the canvas and the wheel-head. The hours spent at the wheel, pulling the same walls, forming the same shapes. Living a vertical life, drawing deeper and deeper.




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