Agnes Martin

The Brooklyn Rail
March 1, 2008

by Ben La Rocco 

I still remember the disappointment I felt when Agnes Martin died in 2004. Of all the artists whose lives overlapped with my adult life, she’s the one I would most liked to have met. There are two reasons why she is so singularly important to me. The first is her dedication to pursuing her career according to her own rules and feelings. The second is her equation of joy and beauty with painting, which she formulated through her lifestyle and, most particularly, through her writing. And then there is her art, without which the extraordinary nature of her personality would be unknown to us. Currently on display as the centerpiece of an exhibition of drawings at Peter Blum Gallery is a portfolio of 30 screenprints entitled “On a Clear Day.” Their appearance in 1973 marked Martin’s reemergence in the art world after having walked away from New York six years earlier to seek inspiration in nature. 

The evenness of the screenprint line in “On a Clear Day” is striking in comparison to Martin’s drawings. Each of the prints is 15 inches square and marks another variation on what seems to be a singular grid. As the series evolves, the lines of this grid grow in turns closer together and further apart, and the points of intersection defining the units of the grid contract and expand. Sometimes the verticals disappear altogether leaving only a set of lonely horizontals. The effect of this slight fluctuation from print to print, the illusion that the work is actually breathing, gets to the essence of Martin’s work: the vastness and complexity of her sense of space.

Grid, in this context, is a convenient but misleading descriptive. It identifies a superficial relationship of Martin’s work to an abstract concept of two-dimensional space, when in fact her painting tends to suggest an extension of our concept of three-dimensional space. The breathing that I describe in these prints takes place serially, from one print to the next. It occurs between the prints, you might say. In this way, Martin allows their space to expand in the mind of the viewer as she travels from one print to the next. Thus they take on an additional dimension. 

I would argue that all Martin’s work, not just the serial editions, accomplishes this. The fourth dimension is the spatial dimension beyond the three-dimensional living space to which we are all accustomed. Length, width and height are the first three dimensions. The fourth is time. So to experience the fourth dimension necessitates moving through three-dimensional spaces. Not a three-dimensional space, as when you’re traveling down a road in a car, but multiple three-dimensional spaces, one after another. For us, the experience is only possible in our minds. “Do not look at the rain,” wrote Martin, “look at the space between the rain.” If you do, you’ll find your field of vision suddenly goes loose, like a sail when the wind has died. You’re not seeing anything particularly; you’re seeing everything at once. This is what Agnes Martin’s work is like for me. I look at her drawings and I see right through them, beyond them into a universe of space, into the fourth dimension.

Martin was preoccupied with perfection and the distinction between how perfection exists in an artwork and how it exists in the world. “I hope I have made it clear,” she wrote, “that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.” She nevertheless insisted that perfection is present in our minds and thus visible to us in the world. A work needs only the slightest hint of it to live. The artist then must keep the work alive, and the observer is left to recognize it. Paradoxically, it is through a painting’s very imperfection—its aberrant marks or uneven lines, its personal quality in short—that a sense of what is real and perfect in the world enters into it.

The quixotic, circular quality of her thought has contributed to Martin’s elevation to the status of seer in many artistic circles. Among the artists who came to prominence in her generation, none insisted on emotional expression, integrity and humility as she did. Their writing and much of their art was dedicated to an intellectual examination of what art could—and could not—be, and their explorations have borne considerable fruit in our own time. Those who follow Martin are in the minority today, and perhaps that is inevitable. Though she always insisted on artists’ needing to follow their own paths, the sheer force of her personality makes it hard not to take seriously the conclusions she drew from her own experience. The asceticism of her life and work is a lesson to anyone seeking comfort in life as an artist.