FRANCES MORRIS AND TIFFANY BELL | DATE 7/13/2015
This week, we release the most important monograph ever published on the great twentieth century painter Agnes Martin, whose name and work are so much in the news because of the definitive retrospective on view at Tate Modern (for which this book was published), and the new biography by Nancy Princenthal. Below is the Introduction to our book, written by co-curators Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell.
ABOVE: "Untitled" (1960).
In recent times, one hundred years after the "birth" of abstraction, the practice of painting – and especially abstract painting – appears as lively, relevant and debated as ever. There is, it seems, even in our globalized and digitalized world, a deep curiosity about the nature of the medium, how it works, what constitutes good painting and how a painting engages the viewer. There is also a real hunger to examine the history of the medium, from its genesis in the radical ferment – cultural, political and spiritual – of the early twentieth century and its development through the paradigm shifts of modernist art history.
Agnes Martin regarded as her lodestars a number of the painters now in the pantheon of Western abstraction, most particularly her near-contemporaries Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. The uncompromising, restrained stance of Martin's mature painting, the elliptical and often opaque nature of her statements, as well as, surely, her gender and her reluctance to be seen as part of a historical discourse, have ensured her – at most – a privileged place on the margins of that historical record. Now, over ten years after her death, her position deserves to be looked at afresh.
This survey undertakes close examination of the two distinct periods that define Martin's career, presenting the full range of early and late work together for the first time. Her early work, rarely exhibited, is, we suggest, essential to an understanding of her oeuvre: it demonstrates how embedded Martin's practice was in the visual language and literature of her time. Our narrative of her early period begins during her brief stint as a student at Columbia University in New York City, continues in New Mexico with her earliest experiments using biomorphic form, and ends back in New York City with her commitment to a delicately refined form of geometric abstraction, in the early 1960s. In 1967 Martin abruptly ceased to paint, and made an extended journey across the United States and Canada to experience silence and solitude. Martin's first recorded poetic meditations on creativity and beauty date from this period; they form part of a memorable body of written work examined in this volume by Jacquelynn Baas. The distinctive voice of the artist is represented here by a selection of her published writings.
ABOVE: "Homage to Life" (2003).
The second period, which begins when she began to make art again in the early 1970s, spans three decades in which Martin, now settled in New Mexico, adopted a self-imposed template of vertical or horizontal stripes using a reduced color palette; from then on she restaged the quiet drama of painting continuously for almost three decades. Critics and observers have marveled at the intensity of these quiet works, all so alike but each one so different from the last. In this volume Marion Ackermann describes a late painting as the "synthesis of all that had gone before," modest in form and subtle in color though with "an immense presence" and "powerful energy that almost takes physical hold of the viewer."
Martin was her own most rigorous critic. From the beginning she ruthlessly edited out paintings that did not meet her particular standard of perfection. Later she attempted to purge works from her own back history that did not conform to what became her signature style and method. She particularly disliked her biomorphic paintings and those experimental and constructed works from her earliest years in New York. In interviews and conversations throughout her life, Martin regularly deflected questions related to her studio practice and to the hard-wrought development of her work. She did not keep records, and very few studio photographs exist. She discouraged interlocutors from considering her painting in the context of her time or as the outcome of her responses to external artistic stimuli. She privileged experience over interpretation, feeling over understanding, and inspiration over planning. Martin was even more reticent about her life beyond the studio. Her schizophrenia and homosexuality, defining characteristics for those who knew her well, were subjects out of bounds beyond Martin's inner circle.
Building on Tiffany Bell's research undertaken for the forthcoming catalogue raisonné, which informs her overview essay in this survey, it is now possible to reconstruct a much fuller and more complex picture of Martin's development. Essays by Frances Morris on her experimental paintings and sculptures and Anna Lovatt on the importance of drawing in Martin's work, as well as "in focus" texts by Rachel Barker, Richard Tobin and Christina Bryan Rosenberger, shed new light on aspects of her practice and show her unique mature style to be informed by close association with her contemporaries as well as by a rich array of inspiring role models. Above all, her paintings, even those canvases made towards the end of her life – examined here by Briony Fer – were shaped by lessons she had learned through rigorous experimentation and innovation many years before. On a more personal note, Lena Fritsch's essay examines the difference between Martin's public and not so public persona as evidenced in a number of known and not so well-known portraits of the artist.
ABOVE: Agnes Martin in her studio on Ledoux Street, Taos, New Mexico, circa 1954. Photograph by Mildred Tolbert.
As Maria Müller-Schareck points out in her essay on the presentation and critical reception of Martin's work in Europe, there has been a long-standing appreciation of the artist and her art among art enthusiasts but often without a full knowledge of the works themselves. Martin always had an ambiguous attitude towards exhibitions and the scholarly and critical attention they generate, sometimes even obstructing the planning of major exhibitions. As a result, the full range of her work has been difficult to consider.
To a large degree, enthusiasm for Martin's work has been generated by artists, both American and European, across several generations. From her earliest shows, she gained support from her peers: Newman installed her exhibitions at Betty Parsons Gallery, and Ad Reinhardt recommended her work for an important early show at Virginia Dwan's gallery. Donald Judd wrote about her exhibitions, and the work of artists such as Eva Hesse and Dorothea Rockburne among many others has been associated or compared with Martin's. The following generation of artists encountered Martin's work principally through her Pace Gallery exhibitions of the 1980s and 1990s as well as, increasingly, on the walls of museums in Europe and North America. A steady trickle of devotees made their way down to New Mexico, and were inspired by the uncompromising stance of her chosen lifestyle as well as in her painting. Richard Tuttle, Roni Horn, Richard Serra and Rosemarie Trockel (in this volume) are among the many senior figures – to cite just the sculptors – who have found in her work resonance within their own practices.
Abstract painting, imbued with new terms, contexts, conditions and methodologies, has come under scrutiny from a generation of younger artists and their critics who are claiming the genre for themselves. There will be many for whom this is the first opportunity to view Martin's work in depth, to reflect on the contemporary relevance of her distinctive practice and its place in art history. What more appropriate moment could there be for reanimating the discussion around Agnes Martin?
Hbk, 8.25 x 10.5 in. / 272 pgs / 160 color.
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