Whitehot Magazine

December 2009, Agnes Martin @ The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday, 1999; Acrylic and graphite on canvas; 152.40 x 152.40 cm; © Estate of Agnes Martin/DACS, London 2008; Photo: A Reeve


ARTIST ROOMS: Agnes Martin
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
75 Belford Road
Edinburgh, EH4 3DR
6 August through 8 November, 2009  

Writing on the dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s deliberate rejection of photogenic poses in the 1960s, Carrie Lambert focuses on the absence of image as an ethical practice. Lambert reads Rainer’s incremental dance moves as a refusal of the ephemeral, but spectacular, triumph of the constructed television image: specifically, constant media depictions of Vietnam. Instead, the materiality of the body as a safe place, a retreat, is sought, a place that keeps on moving, slowly. These ideas came to mind when viewing the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s recent exhibition of some of Agnes Martin’s late abstract paintings. Perhaps these ideas on the politics of withdrawal will resonate with some of Agnes Martin’s late works.

All eight of the paintings have a forceful physical presence that, if one wanted to be deliberately and provocatively reductive, could be termed masculine. In contrast to feminist art historian Griselda Pollock’s experience of Martin’s work, recorded as ‘contemplative, withdrawn, unbombastic’, for me these works are, for some reason, more than a little disturbing. This is perhaps due to their larger-than-body breadth, thick-set square shape, and solid metal frames that reflect sharp lines of silver light and produce a thick, black shadow all the way around the canvases. Viewing is demanding and, to some extent, painful. While from a distance there is a vague sense of atmosphere, up close, details continually pull at the eye to move on, making it impossible to take in more than a small section at once. Rather like Rainer’s anti-camera pieces of choreography, part of the challenge does come from each painting’s resistance to being grasped as a whole image. However, there is a greater sense of unease within the paintings.

For example, in attempting to contemplate Faraway Love, 1999, there is a marked contrast between the horizontal direction of the hyper-sensitive pencil lines that mark each pale blue band’s boundary (along with the horizontal current of those pastel bands), and the multi-directional, plump textured strokes of primer that operate in patches, underlying the blue wash, yet in seeming defiance of the flowing linearity of the painting’s structure. Similarly, in Untitled No. 5, 1998, watery vertical brushstrokes create an inner conflict within the regular horizontal spaces. In both works, and indeed in all of the horizontally-based, pastel paintings on show, a sharp, anxious tension is integrated into the visual field, and into the viewing experience, through this contrast or conflict of directions. Briony Fer, writing in the catalogue to the 2005 Drawing Centre 3 X Abstraction exhibition, which featured Martin’s drawings, comes close to describing a near-violent core in the paintings’ effects. While she focuses on the subjective experience of boundlessness that ‘invites a contemplative gaze’, at one point Fer makes a sudden switch to mechanical, even aggressive, terminology, to observe that a painting by Martin ‘bolts the viewer to it.’

Agnes Martin,  Faraway Love, Agnes Martin, Faraway Love, 1999; Acrylic and graphite on canvas; 152.40 x 152.40 cm; © Estate of Agnes Martin/DACS, London 2008; Photo: A Reeve

Half of the works in the Artist Rooms show are titled; there seems to be no rule, nor date range, guiding the selection of which works are linked with words and which remain nameless – perhaps an equally loaded state. Swooning, optimistic titles such as Faraway Love, as well as Happy Holiday and I Love the Whole World, both 1999, and Gratitude, 2001, feel somewhat hollow, ironic or downright unpleasant, in the face of such sturdy, but tense and difficult, abstractions. Fer again provides some illumination, in contesting that ‘Martin is much cannier about language that usually thought’. She notes that there is a peculiarity in the manner in which the words relate to the work, suggesting a ‘dissonance’ between the title and the work, rather than a straightforward descriptive or explanatory connection. Considering the titles in this lateral way opens up very different dialogues with the named works, in which tones of disappointment, denial or anxiety might be detected.

A standout in the exhibition is Untitled No. 4, 2002, a grey painting, far murkier than much of Martin’s well-known oeuvre, perhaps recalling earlier, denser, darker, oil on canvas works, such as The Dark River, 1961. Darkness aside, its most obviously unusual feature is its composition. Comprising eighteen vertical stripes - marked with heavy, uneven graphite lines, overlaid imprecisely with thicker painted lines that at some points blend into the canvas weave and at other points blot out the pencil marks – verticality as a central motif, rather than the producer of tension, is a crucial surprise this late in Martin’s practice. Rather than appearing at all conducive to contemplation, it is very difficult to find in this painting the atmospheric boundlessness of the horizontally-focused paintings or of Martin’s trademark grids, whose geometry does seem to dissolve into blanket-softness at a certain viewing distance. However, viewed up close, Untitled No. 4 is fascinating in its preservation of the signs of failure. Technically, the application of thin acrylic paint is clumsy, wobbly, loose, demonstrating a distinct lack of the tight control that exposes conflict, as described earlier. Like a watercolourist, Martin seems to be using the white, exposed canvas as an active element in this work. However, much of the coarse-grained material has been overworked, leaving tiny white and grey clusters of scars, resembling paper after it has been erased from one too many times. Anxiety in this work is meshed with an acceptance of failure.

Unfortunately, photographic press image rights were available for only two of the eight of the paintings on show, and there were no images accessible, either on postcards or in catalogues, of the enigmatic Untitled No. 4. This however furnishes a final comparison to Rainer’s dance ethic. Like Rainer’s works, Martin’s paintings are notoriously unreproducable photographically, leading to fixations on their supposed delicacy and pale quietness, framed by repetitive information on the artist’s life and writings. However, in the flesh, like the dance, the abstract painter’s works are experimental and assertive in their materiality, both in their size and thickness, and in the variety of painterly techniques employed. Perhaps Martin too has sought refuge in the physical work of art, though the reasons behind this withdrawal – political or personal - remain the subject for further research.

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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