It has been a great year in London so far for American Abstract Expressionists. Earlier this year the RA held an exhibition of the works of Richard Diebenkorn, a painter rarely shown in the UK, and now the Tate Modern has mounted a full retrospective of Agnes Martin’s career (1912-2004). For someone like me who has had no previous contact with these painters and knew precious little about the American Abstract Expressionist movement, it has been delightfully eye-opening. I have been completely won over by these subtle and quiet works. Although I readily admit that not everyone will feel the same and many have a strong aversion, feeling lost and deceived by what they perceive as empty canvasses or meaningless repetitive shapes and form. The works of these Abstract Expressionists demand patience from the viewer, but their sublime beauty is well worth the investment.
Agnes Martin is best known for her paintings of horizontal bands in white and primary hues such as coral, morning sun and sky. Her paintings emit light and a feeling of Zen like tranquillity. They reflect her pursuit of capturing “upliftedness”, interest in Eastern spirituality and life long struggle with Schizophrenia.
Martin sought, what she called, transcendent beauty and returned to the theme of “upliftedness” throughout her career. This peace and tranquil beauty is what many feel when surrounded by Martin’s paintings. Rooms 4 and 5 are excellent examples of this, with a stunning selection of Martin’s grid in square paintings from the 1960s, including: Friendship (’63); The Islands (‘61); Grass (’67); Tree (’64); Adventure (’67); White Stone (’65); Morning (’65); and The Rose (’65). Later in Room 9 is the magnificent “The Island” series. These 12 large square paintings, in white acrylic and graphite, were created to be shown together and at first glance they appear identical. Yet, as one looks, they slowly reveal their differences. They draw the viewer in to explore their fine lines and subtle nuanced surfaces, offering a type of visual mediation. This is typical of Martin’s work. Initially her paintings seem similar, yet on closer inspection each is different and changes with distance. When one is in front of one of Martin’s paintings one naturally stands back, then, as if pulled by an invisible thread one moves in closer to see the detail. Finally moving away again to take in the full work, to absorb it completely with the intimate knowledge and insight just gained from the closer encounter.
Martin hasn’t always paint in pastel colours nor are her titles always celebratory and this retrospective gives us a look at her full career from the biomorphic paintings of the 1950s, to the Artist Rooms collection (her most well know works in the UK) and her very last drawings.
The Agnes Martin exhibition is currently at the Tate Modern in London until 11th October 2015. For more information and tickets go to: www.tate.org.uk