It’s that time of year. In early summer, I always see a lot of art: some good, some not so good and some really quite bad. But through the weeks of frantically trying not to miss too many of the degree shows I either really want to see or feel I should see, art overload sets in in a big way and it becomes harder and harder for the exciting work to distinguish itself from the been done before but better work and the trying too hard, you’ll be embarrassed by this in a year or two work. How welcome then, to break the cycle of urgency with a calming trip to Tate Modern to see the first major retrospective of Agnes Martin’s work in Britain and the first anywhere since the artist’s death in 2004 at the age of 92.
Agnes Martin is one of those artists whose work I love without really knowing quite why – and without knowing enough about – and mostly on the basis of seeing one or two works while ambling unsystematically through art museums. Prior to the Tate show, the only significant body of Martin’s work I can remember seeing was the long-term display of Martin’s early and late work at Dia: Beacon where, by virtue of Dia’s very particular collection and the nature of the Beacon space (a former biscuit factory in upstate New York), her work was placed in the context of the industrial scale works of Donald Judd, Roberts Smithson, Richard Serra, Walter de Maria, Dan Flavin and the like and off-set by the repetition of Gerhard Richter’s grey mirrors, On Kawara’s date paintings, several rooms of Sol Lewitt wall drawings and a stunning Andy Warhol installation.
The Tate exhibition, which will travel internationally to several other major museums over the next eighteen months or so, is broadly chronological which meant that the first two or three rooms were unfamiliar territory to me, focusing on Martin’s early years as an artist, initially in Taos, New Mexico and then in the Coenties Slip neighbourhood of New York City where Martin lived and worked alongside the likes of Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. There is an energy to some of this work – part painting, part bricolage – that caught me unawares: the line of dots in The Garden (1958) is formed not of paint but of found nail heads; this and the strange sculpture Burning Tree (1961) feels quite different to anything else of Martin’s I’ve seen.
In the late 1960s, Martin moved again to New Mexico where, after a hiatus of several years during which she made no art at all, continued to work there until her death in 2004. There is a quiet intensity to Martin’s work that lets me lose myself in the carefully drawn grids and patterns that cover her canvases; making work like this requires an obsessiveness that somehow always appeals to me. In different ways the simplicity of the canvases seems to reference both Robert Rauschenberg’s minimalist white paintings and Barnett Newman’s abstract expressionist colour field paintings but this creates a level of uncertainty about quite where Martin’s work sits in relation to both.
But there is something more intriguing about Martin’s work than the somewhat dry, academic question of its position within the canon of late modernism and how best to categorise it. In part perhaps it’s the combination of the sparseness of the painting and the precision of the drawing – the struggle for perfection in the drawn grids is very apparent – but the subtlety of the colours also plays a part. Canvases that at first glance seem repetitious reward the viewer for taking a closer look with their different grids and colour schemes. There is something pleasing about the patterns, each seeming to have its own purpose or to offer a particular set of possibilities. Looking at a painting that resembles vaguely the page of some sort of accounts book, I find myself idly wondering whether the appeal of these paintings and my fascination with stationery are in some way connected: I can happily pore over stationery catalogues and browse stationery shops for a very long time. There is something meditative about the different qualities of line and different grids that draws me in and holds me there. I’m usually sucked in by whiteness and emptiness in art which in no small measure explains the appeal of Martin’s work to me and at the heart of the Tate show lies a room in which twelve paintings – The Islands I-XII (1979) – are shown together; Martin considered this body of work as a single, multi-panel work and specified that the paintings can only be shown together. This work, the whitest of the works on show, is beautifully installed – I’m not sure what it is about the light but somehow the air in the space seems clearer – and I find the quiet, stillness of the work utterly compelling. It’s entirely possible that, had there been a seat in the centre of the space, I would be there still, mesmerised by a series of paintings whose beauty lies in its emptiness.
Along with works such as The Islands, which I hadn’t seen before, there are the works I know better, including Martin’s 1963 work Friendship: a grid, like so many of her works but here rather than the characteristic whiteness and sparing use of pale colour there is instead the sumptuousness of gold leaf. Though the gold leaf serves as a reminder Martin’s interest in spirituality and suggests a search for the sublime, it’s perhaps this work above all that means that for me it is the humanness of the paintings that is my focus rather than reading the grid as a precise, almost clinical, system: though she always sought to make the line as perfect as possible – when making the portfolio of screenprints On a Clear Day in 1972, Martin expressed the hope that the printer could somehow straighten out her lines as she could never paint them straight enough – it’s the imprecision, the human touch, that gives the work its resonance.