Where in the World of Art Do Agnes Martin's Visionary Paintings

  • One of my favorite places to see Agnes Martin’s paintings has always been Dia: Beacon, which has a selection of her earliest and latest works on long-term view, in the company of Bourgeois, Beuys, the Bechers; Judd, Flavin, and Serra. Compared to New York City museums, the space feels uncrowded, practically meditative. But even on their own, even as you are seeing them here, scrolling past on your screen in the slideshow below, in the midst of whatever other Internet chatter surrounds you, Martin’s paintings—abstract and distilled, with their resonant line, shape, and grid—inspire such feelings. And that’s precisely how she intended them to be—devoid of suggestion of anything in the real world. “My work is anti-nature,” she writes in her essay “The Untroubled Mind,” one of the many rarities in Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, just out from D.A.P./Tate.

    Where in the world of art, then, does Martin’s work truly reside? Among the Minimalists and Conceptualists that form the core of Dia: Beacon, or alongside the Abstract Expressionists, like those artists whose studios once neighbored hers in downtown New York City? In the inaugural show at the Whitney’s new location, her 1958 This Rain is on view, an early painting featuring two rectangles, pale and pane-like, one an oceanic slate blue, hovering atop another in a sort of grayish off-white shade; together, a bit like a beach on a stormy, overcast day. It’s shown in a section of the exhibition, “America Is Hard To See,” called White Target, collected with painters who came up in an era dominated by Abstract Expressionism, who simplified the style of that movement into their own: Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Ad Reinhardt.

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    Though frequently considered as a kind of bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, Martin seems to equally belong to both—as well as to a place all her own, somewhere between her rural, pioneer Saskatchewan upbringing, the rivers she sailed, the city she lived and worked in, the desert where she painted until she died. Now, more than a decade after her death at 92, another venue to discover her paintings is the Tate Modern, where she is the subject of a major exhibition on view through October 11; the impressive catalogue from which the above images are excerpted. Earlier this summer saw the release of a smart new biography by Nancy Princenthal; plus a book of her works, writings, and Polaroids. With such considerable attention, will the legacy of Martin’s work be able to transcend traditional art historical definitions, lifted into the otherworldly territory in which it truly belongs?

    Born in rural Canada in 1912 (the year the Titanic sank, she was fond of reminding people), she eventually studied art and lived in New York City, her Coenties Slip studio neighbors were Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, and Ellsworth Kelly. When she left the city, she camped around the country for a year, eventually settling in the evocatively named town of Cuba, New Mexico, where she built her own adobe house and studio.

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