Friday, November 20, 2015

The Abstract Art of Agnes Martin


It may be the space – a refurbished power plant with a spectacular open interior several stories high. It may be the shop for art and related books. And it may be that I’m understanding modern art better than I did. But since 2012, when we started making annual pilgrimages to London for vacation, the Tate Modern is one of my favorite art museums in the city.

In 2012, our hotel was on the South Bank, near Westminster Bridge. The Tate Modern was around the bend in the Thames, across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. I could “walk the hypotenuse” from our hotel and considerably shorten the distance. I went three times that year, once to see it, a second time to see the Edvard Munch exhibit, and a third time to see the museum again.

This year, my growing understanding of modern and contemporary art was to be tested at the Tate, with an exhibition of the paintings of American Agnes Martin. It’s officially abstract art, but I won’t argue with anyone who wants to call it minimalist. Pastel minimalist, in fact.

The Islands, 1961
Martin (1912-2004) was born in Canada but eventually landed in Washington State, where she finished high school. She trained as a teacher, but went on to Columbia University in New York to study fine art and art education. After study at the University of New Mexico and a return to Columbia, she became interested in East Asian thought. After receiving her masters in 1952, she went to Taos, New Mexico, doing teaching and other work to support her art.

The exhibition covered her work from the early 1950s to her death in 2004. I paid the fee (about US $18) and walked through rooms initially containing small paintings, gradually giving way to larger and larger works. There was a calm, a serenity about these paintings. They were about light color, in mostly pastel shades, and minimalism is a suitable description for many of them. (As it turned out, my favorite work in the exhibition was entitled “The Book,” a smallish painting that was the least abstract work of all of them.)

Agnes Martin in 1954
These paintings are not about passion; if anything, they suggest the absence of passion. The almost-faded colors of many of them, the similarities they exhibited, and the presence of lines and geometric shapes suggested a detachment, a separation from the world. I wasn’t left cold but I was left feeling distant, a very different response from the exhibition of Martin’s British contemporary, Barbara Hepworth, at the Tate Modern’s sister museum, the Tate Britain.

I enjoyed the exhibition, but I can’t say I became a fan of Martin’s work. Perhaps it was too detached, too zen. I kept straining to hear the winds of New Mexico but instead heard only a rather marked silence.

Resources on Agnes Martin and her work


Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art by Nancy Princenthal.

Agnes Martin by Briony Fer.

Agnes Martin by Lynne Cooke, Editor.


Painting, top: Happy Holiday, oil on canvas by Agnes Martin, 1999.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Martin became a favorite of mine long ago. Her works can be seen at DIA Beacon. I've seen Glimcher interviewing her and I've read Princenthal's book. She lived quite a solitary life in New Mexico.