Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim

October 7, 2016 to January 11, 2017


Agnes Martin is a painter who has interested me for a long time.When I was an undergraduate at Stanford University from 1973-75, I often visited the graduate painting studios and one of the graduate students was working with a pencil grid on delicate surfaces. Indirectly, she opened the way for me to Martin’s work.


I had at that time long been an admirer of Joseph Albers and this painting from the Yale Art Gallery is one of my favorite ones by Albers.


Agnes Martin’s paintings absolutely must be seen in real life as they embrace being in the present, seeing with your own two eyes, of dancing before a painting to see it from close and from far away (as Andrew Forge would encourage us to do).

The major show at the Guggenheim, Agnes Martin’s work from 1957 to 2004, deeply moves me. The feeling I have recalls my response to the 1978 Rothko show.rothko_02_-2500

The story about Minimalism that Newman closed the door, Rothko pulled the shades, and Reinhardt turned out the light of course pokes fun; but I do in fact think of Rothko often when I look at the drawn shade and the southern emanations of soft light from the south in the dark of night. And yet, in Rothko and Martin’s work there is not an allusion to imagery. Nothing is left of the external world. What is important is the state of the artist and the traces of the meditation on the word, the inner reflection, the life of the painting itself.


At the Agnes Martin show, as I begin the ascent up Frank Loyd Wright’s ramp, I am seduced quam celereme by Agnes’ early work.


It’s all there from day one: her sense of touch, the bathed light, the intimate scale. It’s the scale that actually gets better later (in her work and in the show) and the pared-downness that excels in the end.img_2128

I listened to the audio file as I walked the rest of the way up the incline. Her voice was  warm and gravelly as she talked about peace, joy, and truth. (I was reminded of how Gretna Campbell would talk about art). Martin creates a special  compassion, a breadth, a humanity that is rugged and transcendental, inclusive, understanding, and loving.


In her later painting, Martin seems to be thinking about taking the world she had honed-down to the core and then opening it up to some playful considerations. What if the square becomes tilted back from the picture plane and suggests the illusion of depth? Or is it still the picture plane but a trapezoidal shape?


A similar Arnheimian kind of interpretation can come to these enigmatic paintings that seem even more strange on the Guggenheim’s curved walls that seems to defy the architectural parallels of Martin’s paintings. She seems to be rediscovering an innocence, a sense of wonder in these late paintings.



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