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As this 60-year retrospective proves, Agnes Martin’s paintings cannot be fully experienced except by viewing them in person. It’s only when you’re in a room with them that their spirit-lifting, eye-fooling qualities can be truly felt and seen.
The exhibition’s high point comes early on, in a side gallery devoted to Martin’s 1979 12-canvas series, “The Islands I–XII.” Each of the 72-inch square paintings in the series consists of horizontal bands of lighter and darker gray, separated from each other by hand-drawn pencil lines and washed with streaks and scumbles of thinned-out white paint. The paintings flicker and bloom, clouding vision; being among them is like being in a whiteout. “The Islands” were hard-won, and how Martin came to make them is the first part of the show’s story.
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Martin, who died in 2004 at age 92, moved to the United States as a young woman, finally settling in New Mexico. The earliest paintings here—biomorphic abstractions resembling less colorful Arshile Gorky works—were made in the mid-to-late 1950s in Taos. A critical shift in Martin’s style occurred in 1957, the year visiting gallerist Betty Parsons convinced her to move to New York. In the company of artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and the weaver Lenore Tawney (who may have been her lover), Martin began to make more geometric paintings; by 1963, she was using an overall grid as the basis for her compositions.
From here, the exhibition follows Martin’s progress as—within the strictures of a square format, a penciled grid and limited color—she perfected her craft. In paintings from the early 1960s, grids in varying proportions produce different effects: The fine mesh of White Stone (1965) softens from a few feet away into a luminous cloud; in contrast, the grid in Morning (1965), rendered in graphite overlaid with colored pencil, seems to float slightly above the canvas’s white ground.
Though her mature work is both reductive and serial, Martin was no Minimalist. While the Minimalists sought to remove any trace of personal expression from their work, Martin remained committed to conveying human feeling in her paintings. Certainly, emotion is palpable in such works as Friendship (1963): A field of gold leaf incised with a freehand grid, it is as much an offering as a painting.
In 1962, Martin was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Five years later, she stopped painting and left New York, eventually resettling in New Mexico. In 1973 she began to work again, producing series of canvases featuring horizontal or vertical stripes. These ranged from the light-diffusing “Islands” of 1979 to a series of light-absorbing, dark-gray paintings made 10 years later. Late in life, she produced a few Constructivist-like compositions, but her last painting—made a few months before her death and included in the show—consists of quiet bands of alternating white and brushy gray.
This quote from Martin opens the show: “I want to draw…that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature.” Her paintings are not representations of nature but evocations of nature’s effects—and Martin’s pure pleasure in them.