Geometry has nothing to do with it. It’s all about finding perfection and perfection can’t be found in something so rigid as geometry. You have to go elsewhere for that, in between the lines.(1)
— Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin’s now familiar paintings of pencil grids and subtle bands of color are the culmination of a personal search for artistic identity that led her from traditional still lifes and portraits to landscape paintings of the New Mexican desert through variations on Abstract Expressionism. Martin’s austere, variously spaced graphite lines grew out of a pressing need to express what she calls “the most simple, powerful things.”(2) The term “simple” has more than casual meaning for Martin, who has maintained a career-long interest in Asian philosophy, particularly Taoism and Zen Buddhism.(3) “Simplicity,” she has said, “is never simple. It’s the hardest thing to achieve, from the standpoint of the East. I’m not sure the West understands simplicity.”(4) For Martin, her quiet gestures and numinous colors are a distillation of the intuitive “beauty” and “perfection” inherent in nature and the mind.
Martin’s breakthrough came in the mid-1960s with a series of simple pencil grids ruled directly onto gessoed canvases, of which the Modern Art Museum’s Leaf, 1965, is a classic example. Leaf consists of a six-by-six-foot primed canvas, the surface of which is divided with 255 horizontal and 71 vertical pencil lines, creating a geometric web of small rectangular spaces. Related to two other works of the same year entitled Tree,(5) Leaf is a metaphoric expression of the factual “innocence” of a natural phenomenon. Her engagement with the grid form came with her thought of a tree. “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.”(6)
Possessing what might seem to be a rigid and detached symbolism, Martin’s grids are acutely sensitive to their source, forming a natural irregularity that is the visual substance of nature. Although Martin uses a ruler to apply delicate lines of graphite on her canvases, the resulting image avoids the hard-edge clarity of many geometric paintings. Graphite gently dragged across the weave of the canvas offers a gentle and sensuous irregularity. . . . Martin describes this experience in the following manner: “My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square, they are rectangles a little bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power.”(7)
Throughout the 1970s Martin began opening up her grids, emphasizing the intervals between the lines, creating different sensations of space and atmosphere through color and tonal variations. The Modern Art Museum’s Untitled, 1977, plays a poignant role in this evolution. Made of generously spaced, horizontal graphite lines laid down over a murky mixture of gesso and India ink, Untitled speaks of the muscular light of a gray day and what the artist has described as “the beautiful grayness of light.”(8)
During the 1980s and 1990s, color and light again took center stage in Martin’s canvases, creating images that bring to mind words she has used throughout her nearly half-century career: “happiness,” “solitude,” and “perfection.” Reducing her canvas size from a six-foot to a five-foot square so that she can maneuver it more easily, Martin is concluding her life work with an image that is subtly more intimate and yet powerfully expansive. Untitled XVI, 1996, is made of alternating six-inch bands of powder blue and light yellow. Painting on a short, sky-lit wall that can only accommodate one painting at a time in her small studio in Taos, Martin prefers to paint in the mornings when, as she describes it, “light and space, like the mind, are brighter and clearer and not as polluted with information.”(9)
(1) The artist in conversation with the author, 14 September 1988
(2) The artist in conversation with the author, 16 May 1997.
(3) Looking for an alternative to existentialism, many Americans embraced Taoism and Zen in the 1950s. The writings and lectures of D. T. Suzuki at Columbia University between 1940 and 1951 were an important source of inspiration. Among some of the artists in New York who attended those lectures were the musicians John Cage and Morton Feldman, and the painters Philip Guston and Mark Rothko. Martin’s interest in Asian philosophy precedes the interest of many New York intellectuals.
(4) Conversation with the author, 16 May 1997.
(5) In the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
(6) Suzan Campbell, “Interview with Agnes Martin,” May 15, 1989, transcript, Archives of American Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: 10–11.
(7) Agnes Martin, quoted in Lucy Lippard, “Homage to the Square,” Art in America 4 (New York) (July–August 1967): 55.
(8) Conversation with the author, 14 August 1998.
(9) Conversation with the author, 16 May 1997.