‘Simplicity is never simple,’ Agnes Martin once said. It’s a quote which has become iconic, not least as the most befitting introduction to the artist herself. For against the white walls of the Tate Modern, home to her first large-scale retrospective exhibition since the early 1990s, few works of art have stood out so little. Subtle, still and serene, Martin is, by modern standards, alarmingly understated. Yet beneath the subdued surfaces of her works lies an exploration of the transcendental realms of art, and its deeper potential for expression.
Martin became an artist at the age of 30, during the 1950s, a key decade in the development of her aesthetic. She studied art at the University of New Mexico, during which she became interested in East Asian philosophy and spirituality, before moving to New York and immersing herself in the cubist, surrealist movements on the scene. Both experiences helped to inform the contemplative and the abstract qualities of her work, respectively.
For indeed, Martin’s style is distinctive, if exclusive: the horizontal, luminous bands of pastel colours as in Untitled (1977); the faint graphite markings of lines and dots as shown in The Islands (1961); the geometrically-perfect grids of On A Clear Day (1973). These works combine painting, drawing and sketching with a precision almost more mathematical than artistic. She also used materials such as nails and small bits of wood, accentuating the ethereal nature of her creations.
Her prints, which she deemed to communicate beauty and ‘innocence of mind’, required her to cultivate a kind of meditative focus. Her studio practice was all about patience and focus. ‘First, I have the experience of happiness and innocence,’ Martin describes. ‘Then, if I can keep from being distracted, I will have an image to paint. I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for.’ She didn’t believe in experimentation, believing that the artist should fully surrender his mind to the canvas ahead of him for pure, unfiltered expression.
It seems critical to note that Martin suffered severe bouts of paranoid schizophrenia during adulthood. In 1967, it became so severe that she was forced to abandon art-making for the next five years. The placid, ordered surfaces of her work therefore belie a very contrary psychological state: her paintings can be repetitive, if almost obsessive and ritualistic, as though working towards a vision the rest of us can’t quite attain. ‘More and more I excluded from my paintings all curved lines, until finally my compositions consisted only of vertical and horizontal lines,’ she says, before adding, ‘if you can go with them and hold your mind as empty and tranquil as they are… you will realise your full response to this work.’
One can’t help concluding that Martin’s art was, for the most part, a controlled attempt at mental pacification and escapism from these struggles – and yet to pigeon-hole her as a ‘schizophrenic artist’, as critics have previously done, seems unfair. She was meticulous, working tirelessly to express herself as accurately as possible. In fact, one of her dying requests was that her friend go into her studio and destroy the two unfinished works on the floor, in case they become exhibited against her name – a perfectionist to the last.
Ultimately, in her invocation of beauty and innocence in their purest forms, her art itself was about attainment of perfection. In reference to Happy Holiday (1999), art historian and curator Ned Rifkin has likened Martin’s use of geometry to ‘a perfection of form that does not actually exist in the natural world’. Her work does often feel as though it’s materialised without effort or creation, but whether they achieve a certain level of transcendentalism, they certainly aspire to it.
How visitors of her exhibition will respond to these divisive works may depend on their awareness of the depth of expression distilled within them. But either way, the uniqueness of Martin’s aesthetic – quiet but bold, light but all-encompassing, inward but inviting – makes her work all the more worth the contemplation it encourages.