Refining Minimalism

A review by Michael Webb

Form Martin coverSome artists—from Vermeer to Picasso—have become household names through widely circulated reproductions; indeed, the iconoclastic Andy Warhol celebrated the idea of mechanical production and called his studio The Factory. In contrast, Agnes Martin is an artist who can be judged only by the work itself. Born in 1912 on the Canadian prairie, she was a late-starter who developed her rigorous aesthetic in New York, working alongside other pioneers of minimalism in the 1950s. She then moved to New Mexico, and spent her last 30 years in isolation, further refining her paintings.

It’s easy to describe Martin’s penciled grids, which alternate with or underpin soft bands of color, but they have to be seen close-up to appreciate the extraordinary power and depth of these deceptively simple compositions. Standing in front of a six-foot-square canvas affords a patient viewer some of the same hallucinatory thrill as a light work by James Turrell—another artist who prefers to work in the southwestern desert. As you gaze, your eyes pick up on the subtlety of line and tone, and the tension that seems to vibrate within the square.

LACMA director Michael Govan worked with Martin when he headed DIA, and the exhibition he co-curated with the Tate Modern is on show through September 11th, before travelling on for a final presentation at the Guggenheim in New York. It includes nearly 100 artworks spanning six decades, tracing the evolution of Martin’s work from early biomorphic images to the pure geometries of the late 1950s on. There is a print portfolio, and two sculptures, but the focus is on the variations she played on a few basic themes. Her career parallels that of Piet Mondrian, and in both it’s fascinating to discover the hand-made character of the work, and the impact of seemingly small shifts of color, scale and pattern. The catalog illustrates most of the works on show (though not The Sea, a late masterpiece) and contains essays by the curators and other scholars that explore Martin’s themes and put her work in context.

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