I find it difficult to articulate what it is which I find so captivating in Agnes Martin’s paintings. One of the difficulties in approaching her work, at least initially, comes from the “vulgar biographical” reading which imposes itself in Martin’s case more forcefully than with many other painters: that is the perceived quietude, order, exactitude of her compositions and the presumed chaos, violence, dislocation associated with the artist’s acute mental illness. This is, if not entirely facile, evidently inadequate for explaining the attention which the works demand. There is, undoubtedly, a placidity to Martin’s pictures, a calmative quality to the pastel tones and softening of the rays that scatter across their off-white planes. There is, too, (as noted by Rosalind Krauss in her excellent essay “The Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodern Repetition”) an anti-relational challenge presented by her work, whose grid-like structures create a non-hierarchical impression which confounds our capacity for ‘making sense’ of the works (something that reaches beyond the anti-representational character of abstract art more generally).
A recent visit to a small but perfectly-formed exhibition at London’s Pace Gallery, gave cause for thinking about Martin and her work in a little more detail. The exhibition features several paintings by Martin alongside monochromatic (almost universally white/grey) works by Jo Baer and Mary Corse. In this setting, the pictures of Martin’s exhibited stand out as of a profoundly different order; significantly distinct from Baer’s bordered oblongs and Corse’s shimmering pictures of differentiating light. What I found interesting about seeing grid-patterned works done by Martin alongside pictures that were more universally monochromatic (as in the case of Baer) and more directly photonic (in the case of Corse) was the tension which Martin’s works created by resisting an interpretive schema common to the other two one could call textural.
To clarify, there is a temptation always when presented with, in particular, canvases of minimalist composition which are constructed using large planes of monochrome, (especially if these works are “lacking” in the use of colour of someone like Rothko) to concentrate on the textural features of the picture. That is, the way the paint has dried upon the canvas, the tactile quality of the media themselves, the way that the light in the gallery space patterns itself across the work and so on. Indeed, it is an important part of the works themselves. However, the ease with which one adopts this interpretive mode is itself a problem. It all-too-readily enables us to “make sense” of the work before us, resolving any tension in the picture by comprehending it through the vocabulary of materials, physical properties.
This textural mode of reading, coupled with the well-established position of abstract non-representational art in art criticism more generally, has led to a narrowing of the way which such works as those by Martin, Baer and Corse are understood. However, where Corse and Baer (I speak here only of those works presented alongside Martin’s in this exhibition) seem to acquiesce to this interpretive schema, inviting and toying with light and the blankness of the monochrome, Martin’s work appears to do something different, more disquieting, more difficult to read. This disquiet is one largely effected by the use of the grid, the structures of graphite that either divide up the picture entirely or are superimposed over the majority of the paint beneath.
By presenting, in the most elementary form, a depiction, the grid reminds us of the compositional nature of the work, of the mark-making process, but offers us no place to take that recollection. The grid is incapable of originality, of figural transformation; it is doomed to endless repetition. It is, however, distinctly not nothing, nor is it a boundless passage of shade and tone. It is the presence of an opacity, of a marked surface, a shape but one lacking any distinction, a shape that follows that of the picture plane on which it rests. In this way the lines of the grid disrupt the textural attention paid to the paintings, undercutting the eye’s attempts to understand the work only through material means. The grid is the prospect of a shape, but also the imprisonment of that very prospect. The lines resist the texture of the canvas by telling us ‘difference’, ‘line’, ‘process’, but only to reveal sameness, repetition, stasis. The tension effected by the grid then is one by which the resistance to the referential is shown to be all-the-more staunch, uncompromising, through the fragile suggestion of the referential itself. The imprisoned, flattened simplicity of the grid undermines the textural recuperation which might be possible in its absence.
We are too used to conceptual silence, too readily accepting of the totalising nature of the void: its blankness becomes a comfort, absence paradoxically allowing us to focus ourselves on the material, on presence. The all-encompassing plane of non-transformation can still allow us to speak, to discuss the texture of the darkness, the differing ways the light vanishes into the abyss. The flame of the originary is kept alive in its absolute extinguishment. In contrast, the frail but definite presence of the grid is more unsettling. It leaves us stammering, uncertain. The plane is one where transformation must happen, but all that can be effected is more of the same. We might ‘paint with our backs to the world’ but we remain caught within its framework. The originary, the ground zero, is and-always-already compromised by repetition. The carbon has already been copied. In this way Martin’s work discomforts any hope of solving the question of originality, and of art, through purity, through texture. We cannot merely accept the void, we must go on trying to fill it, to create the original, the work, even though any attempt to do so collapses into a quiet, unvarying pattern of lines.