With the Guggenheim Museum having recently opened an Agnes Martin retrospective, we turn back to the May 1973 of ARTnews, in which Carter Ratcliff wrote about the abstract painter’s work. Commenting on how her art is in dialogue with the sublime, Ratcliff explained why Martin’s paintings were different from those of her Abstract Expressionist colleagues. Ratcliff’s essay follows in full below.
“Agnes Martin and the ‘artificial infinite’ ”
By Carter Ratcliff
Agnes Martin has been a painter since the early 1930s when she came to the United States from her native Saskatchewan, Canada. However, her work didn’t mature—or, in her words, “get on the right track”—until 1957. Settling on Coenties Slip, New York, in the vicinity of Ellsworth Kelly and Ad Reinhardt, she shared with them a rejection of 1950s painterliness. In the next ten years she produced a large and consistent body of drawings and paintings in a severely reductionist mode. Nearly always employing a grid pattern, she presents it alone in her drawings, superimposed on a nearly uninflected color field or very often on bare canvas in her paintings. In 1967, she abruptly left New York for a tract of land near Cuba, New Mexico, where she has done no painting or drawing. In the past six years she has produced no art works at all, in fact, except for an edition of prints for Parasol Press. Most of her time in New Mexico has been spent building various houses and sheds. She is at present at work on a studio, presumably in anticipation of a return to painting.
Though six years is a long time to be absent from the New York art scene with its rapid turnover of styles, Martin has continued to be a presiding figure here—perhaps more so now than when she was actually present. One is tempted to see her influence whenever one sees a grid, especially if it is penciled. But a look at her painting and drawings, with her writings, suggests another reason for her importance. She has not only produced stylistically “advanced” works, she has also grappled with a perennial problem, a conflict at the origin of modernist art and, indeed, at the origin of the modern personality; the conflict between the Romantic individuality and the social orientation of classicism, which has persisted through the 20th century—see (among other examples) Purism, Mondrian, Vasarely and his Visual Resarch Group.
At first glance it seems that Agnes Martin is a classicist, pure and simple. After all, she arrived at the austere, elegant, “impersonal” style of her maturity just as American art was finding ways beyond the Romantic excesses of Abstract-Expressionism. Furthermore, in a note from the late ’50s she says, “I would like my work to be recognized as being in the classic tradition (Coptic, Egpyptian, Greek, Chinese) . . .” (This and other quotations from Martin’s writings are from unpublished manuscripts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.)
But it’s not this simple. Granting that the artists in the heroic mode of the ’50s were Romantics, very often self-proclaimed, were any of the reactions against Abstract-Expressionism genuinely classic in spirit?
Martin’s severe, low-keyed work seems to present one of the least qualified examples. But even here there are difficulties. The canons of beauty codified in the High Renaissance and which dominate the following centuries put an emphasis on composition— the harmonious balance of disparate parts. The value of this kind of harmony is maintained through extreme stylistic variation—from the High Renaissance through Mannerism to the Baroque, from the Rococo to 18th-century Neo-Classicism, and down to the “Romantic Baroque” of Delacroix. The 20th century abounds with instances of the maintenance of these compositional values through various romantic-classical shifts even in phrases of completely abstract art; this can be seen in the development of the severe styles of geometrical abstraction out of the baroque, “romantically” efflorescent harmonies of Synthetic Cubism.
Agnes Martin’s work is outside the dialectics of this history, which even at its most extravagantly Romantic preserves compositional coherence. Balanced, composed disparity is precisely what is excluded from her mature work. Her grids are often nearly square, and they always present regular pattern—repetition, not inflected variation. Instead, her images inhabit the space of “non-compositional” Romanticism, the space of the sublime. Here—to use the terminology of Burke’s Inquiry (1751)—a work has its effect through “a perfect simplicity, an absolute uniformity in disposition, shape and coloring,” “a successive disposition of uniform parts” which allows “a comparatively small quantity of matter [to] produce a grander effect, than a much larger quantity disposed in another manner”—the other manner being that of the classically ordered composition, which produces beauty, not the sublime, by means—in Burke’s words—of “gradual variation” in works whose parts “vary in their direction every moment, chang[ing] under the eye by a deviation of continually carrying on,” producing disparate forms ultimately unified or “melted as it were into each other.”
Representational painting, with its responsibility to various types of detail, is somewhat hampered in achieving sublime effects. Its most suitable are the sea (Turner), the sky (Constable), foliage (Church) and, simply, light. A “pure” simple is available only to those artists employing arbitrary forms which can be conveniently repeated or materials which can be presented in uninflected or repetitively patterned fields—architects, composers and abstract painters. Agnes Martin’s mature painting is one of the chief modernist evocations of the “artificial infinite” of the sublime (Burke). Hence not only is she not a classicist, she is not a Romantic of the kind that develops variations on classical composition.
There are of course resemblances between the two kinds of Romanticisim—the sublime and the anti-classical. For example, both year in a quasi-religious way for supra-human absolutes to be reached through the efforts of individuals isolated in their special capacities for artistic creation. Martin describes this traditionally Romantic, absolutist goal as “the perfect state.” Her attitude to perfection—that is, her particular style of Romanticism—is revealed when she says, “The establishment of the perfect state is not mine to do. Being outside that struggle, I turn to perfection as I see it in my mind, and as I also see it with my eyes, even in the dust. Although I do not represent it very well in my work, all seeing the work being already familiar with [perfection] are easily reminded of it.”
This startlingly modest way of describing herself and her sense of the possibilities for her art is in full contrast to classically based attempts to achieve a harmonious balance between the subjective and objective, the artist and the world. Romanticism tends to exalt one over the other. It’s clear that Agnes Martin is a Romantic of the kind who feels that the subjective—the ego—must be left behind if there is to be any contact, however slight, with a true reality. She says, “It is not possible to overthrow pride. It is not possible because we ourselves are pride . . . But we can witness the defeat of pride because pride cannot hold out. Pride isn’t real os sooner or later it must go down. When pride in some form is lost we feel very different . . . We feel a moment of perfection that is indescribable, a sudden joy in living” (From notes of the lecture Martin gave at Cooper Union, in New York, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, February, 1973).
She goes on in the same lecture to say, “a sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work.” It is hard to reconcile this with her attempt to present a joyous perfection in her art, until one sees that the “disappointment and defeat” suffered by pride, by the ego, is a preparatory state. Having passed through this state, having defeated pride, especially pride in artistic virtuosity, the artist can begin to represent perfection. This is summed up in a note on Buddhist doctrine, which also acknowledges the anti-classical direction of her art. She observes that there are, in reaching “true Dharma,” three levels of being. In ascending order of value they are “the ritualistic,” “the underlying purity” which she labels “the classic” and, highest of all, “the void, pure mind, freedom.” For Martin, a Western artist in the modernist tradition, this third level can only be interpreted as a Romantic absolute—an infinite realm of perfection beyond the ego.
These concerns of her writing have a formal reflection in her grid patterns. The way they are never fitted precisely to her square formats free them from a strict reference to their physical locate on the canvas. This, along with their repetitious evenness, makes them potentially capable of unbounded expansion. They become symbols of freedom, hence symbolic evocations of a perfection beyond the individual, the inflected, the virtuosic. In addition, the style of her pencilling is a symbol is a symbol of the defeat of the ego. It is inexact in its linearity, hence not prideful—but it is not assertive in its inexactness either, hence it is doubly free of pride. In noticing the minute imperfections of Martin’s draftsmanship, one enters a realm leading to the infinitely small. The smallest perceivable detail of pencil line, of crayoned color, of paint surface and of the weave of the canvas takes on an intensity for the eye actually comparable to that of virtuoso stylistics. Through her fastidiousness, her reluctance to put much in her images, Martin focuses the little that is there. The intervals of her grids, especially, gain from this, achieving a clarity which rescues them from arbitrariness.
Not only in the formal qualities of her works but in their subdued, even secretive references to nature can be found her extreme version of the Romantic sensibility. Each of her grids seems to an abstract an aspect of nature can be found her extreme version of the Romantic sensibility. Each of her grids seems to abstract an aspect of nature, not usually a specific shape but the generalized persistence of vast phenomena; see Mountain, Dark River, Park, Starlight and many others. However, along with her titled works are others which are untitled but formally similar; these evoke phenomena so vast or elusive as to be unnamable, and seem to shift from external to internal states.
From 1964 on, Martin’s works referring to the generalized, enveloping aspects of nature are joined by others referring to the individual’s responses to nature. The shift of emphasis is indicated by a new kind of title: Play, Adventure, Journey, Song. Form changes very little, suggesting—as her writings would lead one to anticipate—that Martin is interested in only the most general, stable, unspecific aspects of subjective experience. The new style titles do, however, require a shift away from “representational” color: the green pencil lines of Park and the red ones of Rose give way to the less easily interpreted near-monotones of Play and Adventure. A title from 1963 which could refer either to internal or external condition is joined to an ambiguous use of color: Falling Blue may represent a natural phenomenon, the mood of one immersed in it or both at once.