The Agnes Martin RetrospectivePrint
What to make of all those fussy graphite lines?
By Phillip Lopate
December 16, 2016
Last week I went to the Agnes Martin retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. I had been wanting for weeks to go because I’ve always, always, always liked Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings. I tried to talk my wife into going with me, since she is an ex-painter and admires Martin too, but she wanted to see it with one of her girlfriends, so it was left to me to go alone. Just as well, since Martin’s work is considered spiritual and contemplative, appropriate for a one-on-one communion. I had to find a hole in my schedule, and finally one arose on a Friday, right after my annual medical examination. The news there was not so great—my blood pressure numbers had gone up and I had gained weight, which my frowning internist told me were probably connected—but at least I could treat myself to this show of quiet paintings, which might heal or at least reduce my stress.
Here I must digress and explain my attachment to abstract minimalist art. I grew up in the heyday of abstract expressionist and minimalist painting. My brother, an aspiring artist who studied with Ad Reinhardt, imbued me with an aesthetic of rigor, restraint, and system, valuing above all internal consistency. From Rogier van der Weyden to Rothko, everything had to be austere and profound. I remember going to the retrospective of Ad Reinhardt paintings at the Jewish Museum, where you were greeted with a list of items proscribed by the artist (no color, no drawing, etc.) until all that was left were these vertical canvases that looked all-black from a distance but revealed almost imperceptible divisions and markings up close. I really liked them. I suppose there was an element of pride in belonging to a cognoscenti who could appreciate such subtle refinements, but the bottom line was that I genuinely thrilled to this art. I liked Barnett Newman’s paintings, which also looked darkly forbidding except for jagged drips in the middle, and Ellsworth Kelly’s monochrome paint-box series, and Vija Celmen’s all-gray wave fields. A highpoint of my lifelong museum-going experience was the Mondrian retrospective at MOMA, where you could see up close the handmade lines that had drawn the rectangles and the cracks that time had wrought on the surfaces. So naturally I was a fan of Agnes Martin’s austere, minimalist grids, though she disliked being labeled a minimalist and preferred to be called an abstract expressionist, the latter term regarded by her as more emotionally and less intellectually based. She wanted people to feel her work deeply, not just cerebrally take it in.
There was some anxious talk among the critics that the Agnes Martin retrospective, which had originated to great acclaim at the Tate in London, might suffer from the spiral configuration of the Guggenheim. Honestly, I have never understood this idea that Frank Lloyd Wright’s bowl-like architectural design fought with or even ruined certain exhibits. Maybe I’m insensitive, but when I go to that museum I just look at each work in turn and move on, the way I would if the building were a regular square.
As is the Guggenheim’s custom, the retrospective began near the ground level, with Martin’s earliest, more student-like works on display; one was expected to walk arduously up the spiraling ramps, as though on one’s knees in a religious pilgrimage, to reach finally her last paintings. In a spirit of rebelliousness, and to spare my leg muscles, I decided to do the opposite: take the elevator to the top floor and stroll downhill. Even if this meant having to reverse the narrative of her artistic career in my mind, from fruition to seed, why not run it backwards?
In her last paintings she had moved away from her celebrated black-gray-and-white palette into pastel shades, embracing sensuous, shimmering light effects. I wasn’t sure what to make of this change. Some of these canvases were aglow, magical; others verged on sentimental cotton candy. Artists in old age often loosen up, decoratively speaking: think of De Kooning’s final ribbon paintings. Martin had famously left the New York art world in 1967, traveled around the country and settled in New Mexico, where she lived more or less like a hermit. She also abandoned artmaking for a number of years, then took it up again, and eventually composed these pastel-shaded works, which still employed gridded or banded compositions. A wall statement informed the viewer that Martin, Zen-influenced, insisted all her work was about joy, happiness and love of this world. You could have fooled me. Her last pieces, however, suggested a conscientious working-out of this “happiness” program—and seemed dubious for that reason. I worry when serious artists start telling me their purpose is to make me feel joy.
Moving to a lower incline, I found myself much more at ease with the gray paintings of the 1960s, with which I was already familiar. They featured meticulous graphite grids composed of thousands of patient strokes. Some of them I thought flat-out magnificent, while others just sat there mutely. I was baffled why one might seem so full and another empty, when both employed more or less the same technique.
Much as I loved this middle period of Martin’s work, I started feeling anxious and uneasy. All these tiny, fussy little graphic lines—what did they remind me of? Suddenly it came to me: a show I’d once seen of the outsider artist Martín Ramírez, who was a catatonic schizophrenic institutionalized in California mental hospitals. He built his beautiful drawings out of tiny repeated markings, compulsively. There was a clear relationship between his mental illness and his artistic output. It struck me just then that Agnes Martin was completely mad! All that talk about joy and happiness was the sign of someone who had to defend herself against powerful inner demons. Strangely enough, just as I was thinking this I came upon a wall placard mentioning that Martin had been schizophrenic, off and on, her entire life.
No wonder I was freaking out and wanting to flee the museum: I have always been leery around crazy people. Rightly or wrongly, I always felt I had a radar, a second sense, able to detect craziness in others. No doubt there’s a certain amount of low-grade paranoid projection in this sensitivity; but however it operates, I continue absolutely to trust my instincts that I can pick up on insanity around me. For instance, I’ve had creative writing students who were, well, nuts. Ignoring my first impulse to run out of the room during conference, I would discipline myself to sit quietly and talk to them for half an hour, and in the end we got along fine, the crazy ones and me.
This time, I was able to put aside my agitation and descend to the lower rungs of the Guggenheim, taking in the way Agnes Martin developed her strict mode of operation from early, tentative experiments. At every stage of her development, on every ramp of the Guggenheim, there had been some breathtaking pieces. It was, all in all, a show I was happy to have seen, and I left the museum feeling, by however minimal degrees, calmer.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.