Between the Lines
Posted by Andrea D. on September 22, 2011 - 12:45pm
Categories: On the Walls

Agnes Martin’s work has recently been reinstalled in one of the smaller galleries on the first floor. Leaf (1965), Untitled (1977), Untitled XVI (1996), and nine of the thirty prints from the suite On a Clear Day (1973) are displayed on four walls facing opposite each other, creating an environment that allows viewers to become completely immersed in the grids that are sketched on their surfaces.

Martin’s work evolved from representational imagery to biomorphic abstraction over the course of her career before she finally settled on geometric forms as an appropriate means of conveying spiritual content. According to Barbara Haskell’s book titled Agnes Martin, the artist once wrote that her decision to paint rectangles was inspired by the phrase, “surely the people are grass,” a passage from Isaiah 40:7. “All the people were like those rectangles; they are just like grass,” Martin wrote. “That’s the way to freedom. If you can imagine you’re a grain of sand… all your troubles fall away.… In a big picture a blade of grass amounts to not very much.” 

While the titles of several paintings allude to grass, trees, and other elements of the natural world, it is the transcendence associated with opening oneself up to nature—rather than imposing oneself on it— that Martin sought to convey in her work. When asked why she had titled a painting Grey Geese Descending, for example, Martin replied, “We have certain feelings when birds descend. And that’s what the painting is about…descending feelings. They’re beyond words.” Haskell also notes in her book that “it was not that geometry could represent the reality of the sublime, but that it could offer a means of attaining ‘a plane of awareness’ upon which the perception of sublimity depended.” That sense of sublimity that Martin had in mind revealed itself as I gazed at her On A Clear Day suite: lines and columns of various densities, alternating between open and compact grids that expand or contract on the page like ripples on a pond. Ultimately, Martin hoped her work would evoke “a state of perfect restfulness; not a slackened, closed, or unconscious state (like sleep), but an expansive, meditative consciousness.”

In her book, Haskell states that Martin’s “pictorial style” is influenced by an idea that was popular in antiquity. “The Greeks,” Martin wrote, “made a great discovery. They discovered that in nature there are no perfect circles or straight lines or equal spaces. Yet they discovered that their interest and inclination was in the perfection of circles and lines, and that in their minds they could see them, and that they were then able to make them.” In short, Agnes Martin and the Greeks recognized that, “the mind knows what the eye has not seen, but that what the mind knows is perfection.”