The retrospective at Tate Modern of Agnes Martin brings together her rich body of work with great sensitivity. The exhibition is the first of Martin’s work in the UK for over twenty years and includes pieces from the full breadth of her career, from her early beginnings in the 1950s to the last piece she created in 2004.
In considering Martin’s relationship to the rich, vast landscapes of New Mexico, and affiliation with the West of America, her paintings echo the calm atmosphere present in the desert’s surrounding Taos, her home for many years. The large, intricate works perhaps operate as creative escapes from her mental illness. If to be abstracted demonstrates a distance from the material world, then Martin’s paintings consistently suggest an otherworldly state of mind. They demonstrate the passing of emotional states, a manifestation of an internal psychological struggle.
One could view Martin’s work as the hybrid between complete control and escape. Martin’s philosophical concerns with Zen Buddhism and Taoism render her paintings commentaries on her continual strive for a sublime state of being. Each grid, as seen in ‘White Flower’ (1960) are symptomatic of a greater desire to find relief from the complexity of thought, through the guise of pastel lines, and meditations on the world and her being in it. The serenity of her paintings reside in the subtle marks on canvas, the modest lines which draw the viewers’ eyes across, and seemingly beyond the artwork’s materiality. Consistently throughout the retrospective, the paintings are activated by our bodily encounters with them; the spectator’s physical engagements with the work unravel the sensitivity of Martin’s personality.
These paintings demand great consideration across eleven rooms of huge canvases in muted tones and pastel colour palette. In particular her series ‘The Islands’ (1979) depict the minimalist aesthetic of Martin’s entirely abstract, and imperceptible exploration of ‘less is more’. They invite the spectator to consider truth not just within the image but further the truth within the paint employed: its materiality. Her aspiration of beauty is not idealised abstraction but instead pure forms which relieve the mind from thought.
Martin strives to evoke the intangible. Through the meditative succession of ‘not thinking’ her paintings aspire to symbolise her overriding concern with the slippage between not being simply ‘abstract’ or ‘minimal’. There is a void which transfers beyond the visual materiality of her paintings and thus pushes the spectator to look beyond the canvas. This metaphysical element to her work internalises a space which Martin willingly aligns with ideals of natural forms, reasserting what she ‘does’ when painting.
The silence of the retrospective is interrupted by the final room, where small drawings from the end of Martin’s life are placed next to one another, as a subtle archive of her thoughts and actions. These works trace back, and contextualise the larger, bolder works found earlier in the retrospective. The smaller prints make paramount the process integral to Martin’s practice. This exhibition invites the viewer to look beyond materiality, to consider the philosophy of mindfulness through the rich grid of minimalism and abstraction. They are, in their very abstractness and generality, offered to whomever might come to see them, invited to look from a place of pure emotion.