Friday, 17 July 2015

Art as a path to the sublime: Agnes Martin at Tate

I have a bit of time today, so thought I would talk briefly about the Agnes Martin show at Tate:

Unexpectedly, I found I had a day longer in London last weekend than I thought, so took the opportunity to see the show.

I can honestly say, it is one of the best exhibitions I have ever been to, and I've been to many.  First up: the place was almost empty, which is the best way for a gallery to be, even better for an Agnes Martin show, which requires deep looking and thought in a peaceful environment.

The curation and hang is superb; Martin was in the habit of re-acquiring early work in order to destroy it, here we have examples of her entire life's work.  The examples of early work, while not as interesting to me; they are derivative of other artists's works and movements ( Surrealism, Cubism for example); they were useful as part of the context of her development, as with any retrospective.  For example, Martin's colours remained pretty much the same throughout her career:  neutrals or mostly very pale hints of colours; like looking at colours behind a veil. Where she use stronger tones the colours are still mostly neutrals although stronger colour is occasionally evident.  I was fascinated by this thread throughout her life's work.  It is interesting to see how her work changed when she moved to New York, becoming full of life, expectation and experiment and the moment when she cast off curved lines to embrace the grid, vertical and horizontal line.

Each space provides the work room to breath; the fact that the gallery was almost empty helped of course, but these works require time and contemplation and the hang enables this.  One of the rooms, 7 I think, had cleverly screened a floor to ceiling window with fine white fabric, filtering the light but allowing the grid of the window design to show through, echoing the grids of Martin's work.

Martin's works on paper are equally enthralling, room 10, "presents a retrospective within a retrospective", to quote Tate.  Room 6  shows a collection of silk screen prints published by Parasol Press in 1973 that she had worked on in Stuttgart the previous year.  I found these interesting because Martin had expressed a need to "straighten out her lines" because she could "never paint straight enough".  The slight waverings of her lines in the paintings, creating optical wobbles and movement is one of the aspects of her work that I enjoy; the imperfections of the straight lines reflecting the frailty of human existence and evidence of the artist's hand at that particular moment in time.  However, this desire to straighten out the lines provides us with an insight into her nature; I suspect she was not all sensitive and vulnerable; there is a doggedness, a determination about Martin's continual exploration of line, grid and surface that shows strength of mind and character, whilst acknowledging the frailty of her mental health.  You'd have to be bloody minded to keep on making canvasses of the sizes she selected and to continue exploring her themes as she did.

Room 9:

"My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything - no forms.  They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form"  Agnes Martin, 1966.

The highlight of the entire exhibition for me.  This suite of twelve paintings, The Islands, all white canvasses each 182.9 x 182.9 cm square, are utterly beautiful.  They are so sensitively curated; instead of the usual wire barrier that sounds an alarm should any visitor get too close, there is a platform about eight inches high all round the room beneath the paintings, keeping visitors the same distance from the work.  The walls are painted a shell like tone of palest lilac allowing the works to communicate without any visual struggle. These works require time and patience; I could have stayed in there all day and more. 

Tate describes them as Martin's most silent works.  Their surfaces require intense scrutiny to appreciate their surfaces and fine lines; Martin was interested in East Asian philosophy and spirituality and they reflect this.  I found myself becoming intensely emotional while looking at these works, it was a really profound experience.

On considering why this was so, I think it was the sheer scale of the group that reflect, for me, Martin's intense scrutiny of herself through painting.  I was not overwhelmed by them because I thought they referenced my scant knowledge of Martin's fragile mental health but because of the absolute commitment, determination and focus that these paintings express.

I am not going to describe the entire exhibition, I could not do it justice.  It is a wonderful example of how an artist can produce a profound body of work throughout their life by sticking with and honing one idea, building on it as understanding and experience grows.  I cannot recommend this exhibition enough, it is a "must see".

"You are what goes through your mind, whether you are aware of it  or not, you know, and if you can become aware of it and then if you can try and express it, you are an artist", Agnes Martin, video, Road Trip

(Quotes are taken from Tate literature and web site).

Interesting reviews:

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