Until very recently I had not heard of the American artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). And yet, having now twice visited the Tate Modern’s retrospective* of her work, there is no doubt that she was a major modern artist. Her paintings are stunning, and her overall body of work must surely claim to be among the greatest art of the second half of the twentieth century.
A good place to start is with Martin’s own words (as quoted in an essay by Nancy Doyle) about how to view her work: ‘You just go there and sit and look.’ It is worth reflecting on the three parts of this guidance. First: ‘go there’. The actual painting itself has to be viewed. Martin is an extreme example of an artist whose work defies reproduction. Second: ‘sit’. What she means, I think, is that her paintings require time. The experience of viewing a Martin painting cannot be hurried. Third, ‘look’. Martin’s work requires attention, but attention of a particular kind. It needs to be ‘open’, careful not to judge or to overthink or to grasp at meaning. As befits an artist for whom Zen Buddhism and Taoism were influences, her work is best looked at without thought, with as clear a mind as possible.
Consider a painting such as Morning (1965).
|Agnes Martin, Morning (1965), Acrylic paint and graphite, 182.6 cm x 181.9 cm|
Initially, if merely glancing at this painting, one may feel perplexed, perhaps even dismissive. It is simply a grid drawn in graphite on a large canvas painted in off-white. But the longer one looks, the more one sees. Viewed from a distance the painting has a hazy effect, rather like mist or fog. The grid is indistinct, even to the point of being barely visible. Approach closer and the grid takes on detail. At a certain distance the grid appears to have the perfect regularity of graph paper. Move in closer still, right up to the canvas itself, and one can see the irregularities in the lines: some are stronger than others; there are small kinks as the lines respond to variations in the artist’s hand or the variations in the texture of the paint. If distance is akin to viewing a mist, then closeness is like seeing the defined, fine droplets that constitute the mist. Morning is typical of Martin’s work in its invitation to observe and reflect on this relationship between minute detail and the whole.**
The painting is evidently not representational. Or, rather, it does not represent an objective world. Instead, in so far as the concept of representation has any meaning here, Morning is attempting to portray a feeling, an emotion, perhaps a truth or reality that transcends the visible world. Martin said of Morning: ‘I was painting about happiness and bliss and they are very simple states of mind I guess. Morning is a wonderful dawn, soft and fresh.’ In short, the painting is trying to capture the nature of a morning’s beauty, but the beauty that is felt and experienced—it is not attempting to define the ‘seen’ beauty as it may reside in the object, but rather the inner feeling of beauty we may have when experiencing the morning.
There is a sublime sense of calmness and silence in Martin’s best work—indeed, to the point that the experience of viewing her paintings has often been described in religious or spiritual terms. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this is Islands (1979), a set of twelve paintings intended to be displayed as a group.
|Agnes Martin, Islands (1979)|
From a distance they appear to be no more than white canvases. Again, close viewing is repaid, as faint lines and bands of pale blue emerge. As a whole, meditation is perhaps the best way of viewing them—Islands, as a work which depicts nothing, in so far as they are ‘about’ anything it is the intimate experience between the work of the art and the viewer. But beyond that, articulation is almost impossible: as Martin said, just sit and look.
* 3 June to 11 October 2015
** It also reminds me of the earliest experiments with the microscope, recorded by Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665). One of the most wondrous discoveries—captured in the remarkable illustrations to Micrographia—was how objects that appeared perfect in form, such as a pinhead or a printed full-stop, were full of numerous imperfections when viewed through the microscope.