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Holding Onto Form and Passion: Agnes Martin’s Guggenheim Retrospective Reveals How Her Self-Incarceration Produced a Visual Utopia

Agnes Martin, Mid Winter, ca. 1954, oil on canvas, 33 x 48 inches. ©2015 AGNES MARTIN, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/TAOS MUNICIPAL SCHOOLS HISTORIC ART COLLECTION, NEW MEXICO

Agnes Martin, Mid Winter, ca. 1954, oil on canvas, 33 x 48 inches.

©2015 AGNES MARTIN, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/TAOS MUNICIPAL SCHOOLS HISTORIC ART COLLECTION, NEW MEXICO

What’s in a name? Quite a bit if the name is Agnes Martin. Agnes is a martyr, a virgin saint, the patron of girls and gardeners. And both martyrdom and gardening come right to the point of Martin’s art.

Her career started late. Born in 1912, she left Saskatchewan in 1931, moved to New Mexico, where she experimented with painting, composing vaguely post-Impressionist portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. In 1957, at the age of 45, she moved to New York, where her painting quickly metamorphosed into her signature style.

At that point, art in New York was in flux: Jackson Pollock died in 1956; Rauschenberg and Johns were about to launch their careers; Helen Frankenthaler was spattering paint all over her canvases. Martin’s work of the 1950s, represented here by Mid Winter (ca. 1954) and Untitled (ca. 1957), fits within a stylistic framework—that is, it looks like 1950s painting. Not derivative, not imitative, it nevertheless uses a shared idiom.

Agnes Martin, The Egg, 1963, ink on paper, 8½ x 6 inches. ©2015 AGNES MARTIN, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/COURTESY THE ELKON GALLERY, NEW YORK

Agnes Martin, The Egg, 1963, ink on paper, 8½ x 6 inches.

©2015 AGNES MARTIN, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/COURTESY THE ELKON GALLERY, NEW YORK

These two works—Mid Winter painted before Martin reached New York—follow an established format. The surface is an enclosed space filled with biomorphic or loosely geometric forms and color masses. Expression—of passion, for example—is entirely possible because the canvas is, as in traditional painting, a window encapsulating, variously, a perception, an allegorical concept, or the juxtaposition of shapes and colors. To become herself, she had to discover her own artistic language.

We see Martin’s search come to fruition here in a series of drawings from 1960. The painterly surface is no longer an enclosed space that the artist populates but a field on which she imposes an order. The order is geometry, Martin’s tool for controlling various kinds of nature, her own and that of her art. As her grid-work technique develops—and, as The Egg (1963), an astonishing ink-on-paper drawing, shows—Martin’s art becomes, more and more, a version of the classical garden in the rigorously controlled style of André Le Nôtre’s Versailles gardens. Nature and self are dominated by form, and passion becomes subordinated to a rigid discipline. Martin never compromises: she is implacably rigid.

How does she do this and still maintain the viewer’s interest? Sometimes, she simply goes off the deep end: the wood and metal sculpture Burning Tree (1961) is a fairly terrifying vagina dentata straight out of the male nightmare catalogue. But that piece is an exception. Mostly, it is we, the viewers, who must work to understand what Martin is saying, which is, that only the complex, the difficult, can be interesting.

She martyred herself to her discipline and in doing so created agonizingly beautiful works like Untitled No. 6 (1994), in which we see that her self-incarceration produces a visual utopia. Like the masters of the 17th century, Martin demands much of us, but the result is worth much more than the effort.

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