Agnes Martin: Homage to Untitled Life.
These points are placed in the spaces formed by the grids drawn on three 9x9 ink, pencil, and/or gauche drawings in room #9. (1) There are a finite number of drawings in the room.
Drawing as the crisis of the line. The line as the crisis of time. ("A line begins as a point in space" (2)) (and erases the space that it pulls along).
A line would seem a simple thing, one of the clearest and most comprehensive forms of measure because it measures both the space it crosses and the time it takes to cross it. Unfolds it. And always further unfolding, the line in its walking with the grace of a lateral falling, literally creating the space it unfurls, tucking its patient time inside.
Drawing begins in graphite, with its mineral glint, its granular and crumbling light, anthracite within. There is something about graphite that is relentlessly internal, always an inner eye. Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 2000. Glint that hovers, glint that glides, that the light of its darkness defies.
She would have denied this, seeing art instead in the positive, (since all of life is positive. (3))
Proved: Light arrives and is returned, sharper cut into a miracle of pencil seemed so simple. lead on linen. as if
any grey always had it halfway silvered, mirror-tarnished, half the line
while the other half the darker back aligned, grave.
Then turning later to paint, to rulers, to masking tape, in the break, in the split second in which the hand breaks down, which breaks out, which overflows, which ink will, or ink with water in, in a wash, will wash over, a fluid and.
And there are waves on the shore she said pointing to a washboard of clouds in the sky, my work has nothing to do with landscape, she said, despite. (4) A landscape of clouds in a wallpaper pattern that hauls the sky behind. Material presence and all presence incised.
She was known for going for long drives. Sometimes she'd say to a friend "Let's go for a drive." And hours later, sometimes days. Distance is farther inside.
Agnes Martin was also a writer--the shadow of a hand floating over paper--in her titles, which are other lines, equally fine, equally precise, collapsing the distinction between the drawn and the
written. a sister night by the sea stone a falling sign in flowered rain wind in the blue of friendship, night in the sea of friends how the simple builds into grandeur simply by the repetition of patience burning wave the tree in song the song in field falling white, little held or the light that falls was always yours and is yours again falling in a word
The writings that she conceived and intended as such--those collected in Writings,'' for instance--are startlingly simple, aphoristic, almost platitudes--Beauty is the mystery of life; The goal of life is happiness; Artwork is very valuable (6)--yet somehow, against all odds, they amount to something very moving, sincere, and, ultimately, utterly convincing. Again through repetition--beauty, happiness, the process of life. Is yours again.
Take, for instance, The Islands, 1961. Dating from her time at Coenties Slip and her carefully dovetailed reconciliation of a Calvinist background with Taoist-Zen sensibilities developed in conversations with Ad Reinhardt in the 1950s. A grid composed of 1,536 squares, each one dotted with four pale marks resembling dashes in Morse code. 6,144 Ts. A sea of them. Raising the question--what is an island? Does it require isolation? Or just a sea?
In his essay for the 2015 Tate catalogue, Richard Tobin uses the term "vast" to talk about this painting--"a haze of vast ocean in deep crepuscolo." (7) That vast belongs to most, that vast an ocean, chose the square
At a certain point, Martin decided to confine her formats to the square. The square inherently refuses hierarchy in its equal extension in each of the four cardinal directions. And therefore functions sheerly as distance
Going nowhere. Annihilating the possibility of horizon and thus for the first time able to depict the endlessness of the spherical, thus for the first time, a landscape not limited by an eye. a waterfall she said, anyone can stand all day in front of a waterfall hauls the sky within. A falling night with wind. There's a shadow on the brain. Or perhaps it didn't seem like a shadow at all. She would ask a friend to go out for a drive.
She began using the grid in the early 1960s, and by 1963, they were her predominant form, suggesting weaving, an interlacing of that line that fuses time and space. She has often said that she was thinking of the innocence of trees. (9) Take, for instance, The Tree, 1964, no bluer thing in orchard fact to branch against--Innocence, she said, and there it was, a fact fracturing light.
If the grid is based in trees, all seen from above.
Counting again under the breath.
The bird's eye view. Is also a pacing step. And what would then be innocence? And what is its relation to the intimate?
Martin, who repeatedly stated that personal emotions... are anti-art, (10) made a neat distinction in her work, imbuing it with an intimacy entirely free of the personal, even of personality. Achieved by infusing the intimate with distance. As also has all innocence. You stand back a bit, utterly changed, before you the picture. And so she changed her life.
In 1967, Martin suddenly stopped painting, the hand poised mid-air, staying there, giving all her brushes and pigments away. She moved to Cuba, New Mexico, becoming an island whenever--does it require isolation--it rained a moving water. Without plumbing or electricity, building her houses by hand.
And it rained again, a raging, flailing screen, straight down, staring out the window, wondering why a downpour, composed as it is of chains of transparent water, appears to the human eye as grey.
As veiling a face thriving behind a sheet of sun.
Began painting again in 1975. Works often composed solely of horizontal lines. How might isolation be its own horizon. Or the vertical is the portrait, and now all the people are gone.
And yet friendship remains. They'd go out for a drive or for days she worked steadily up to her death almost thirty years later. The titles of her 2003 works include Homage to Life and The Sea.
Martin, Agnes, Agnes Martin: Writings, ed. Dieter Schwartz, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2005. This volume can be downloaded as a PDF at: https://www.docdroid.net/1 siRthc/36073257-agnes-martin-writings.pdf#page=3
Ed. Morris, Frances and Tiffany Bell, Agnes Martin, London: Tate Publishing, 2015.
Rosenberger, Christiana B., Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin, University of California Press, 2016
The italicized short lines on p. 103 are composed of words taken from her titles and rearranged.
An excerpt from this work in an earlier version appeared in the Berkeley Poetry Review #47; many thanks to the editor Lindsay Choi.
(1) This reference is to the exhibition, Agnes Martin, at the Tate Modern, 3 June to 11 Oct., 2015. All paintings and drawings referred to in this piece are included in the catalogue of that exhibition: ed. Morris, Frances and Tiffany Bell, Agnes Martin, London: Tate Publishing, 2015.
(2) Rosenberger, Christiana B., Drawing the Line: Jhe Early Work of Agnes Martin, University of California Press, 2016, p. 130. Her actual wotds are "Lines began as points in space."
(3) Agnes Martin: Writings, ed. Dieter Schwartz, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2005, p. 140.
(4) Bell, Tiffany, "Happiness is the Goal" in Agnes Martin, ed. Morris, Frances and Tiffany Bell, London: Tate Publishing, 2015, p. 29.
(5) Martin, Agnes, Agnes Martin: Writings, ed. Dieter Schwartz, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2005.
(6) Martin, Agnes, Agnes Martin: Writings, ed. Dieter Schwartz, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2005, p. 153, p. 153, and p. 156 respectively..
(7) Tobin, Richard, "The Islands, 1961," in Agnes Martin, ed. Morris, Frances and Tiffany Bell, London: Tate Publishing, 2015. p. 78.
(8) Bell, Tiffany, "Happiness is the Goal" in Agnes Martin, ed. Morris, Frances and Tiffany Bell, London: Tate Publishing, 2015, p. 29, n. 35. Originally from a talk at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992. Her actual words were: "There's nobody living who couldn't stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall."
(9) Martin, Agnes, from an interview by Suzan Campbell, May 15, 1989, archived in the Archives of American Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; quoted in Agnes Martin, ed. Morris, Frances and Tiffany Bell, London: Tate Publishing, 2015, p. 26 and p. 56.
(10) Martin, Agnes, Agnes Martin: Writings, ed. Dieter Schwartz, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2005, p. 153.