23 August 2007

* * * * THE VISUAL WORLD * * * *

" ... And who, precisely, is Agnes Martin?

"Her semi-obscurity is exactly the point ...

"The paintings are reticent in turn -- pale, spare, barely there.
(Martin rejected the term Minimalist in favour of Abstract Expressionist, but if she wasn't a Minimalist, it's not clear
who would be.) Her pictures seldom reproduce well; and at first one looks much like another.

"Martin's basic technique stayed the same for years. She began with a square canvas -- precisely six feet by six feet -- and primed it with plain white gesso. On top of the gesso she then laid down faint horizontal lines in pencil, followed by exacting, ultra-thin washes of oil paint or acrylic. Sometimes she added vertical pencil lines, creating delicate grids; at other times, she made simple horizontal stripes. The bands of pigment were usually matt white or off-white, sometimes tinted a pale gray or yellow. Later in her career she added a nearly invisible coral pink and a faint blue pastel to her palette. And that, kids, was that.

"It is impossible to overstate their self-effacing beauty. Martin herself wrote that she believed the function of art to be "the renewal of memories of moments of perfection." Making art seems to have been a kind of meditation for her: she meant her paintings as aids to contemplation -- "floating abstractions" akin to the art of the ancient Chinese. And it's true, though they are built up line by line, by almost imperceptible increments, that after a while her pictures begin vibrating on the retina with a strange energy -- flipping back and forth between metaphysical registers, like one of Wittgenstein's playful visual paradoxes. The sense of calm they evoke in the viewer is similar to the liturgical mood Rothko's work can produce, but Martin is less morbid, theatrical and self-consciously "profound". Facing down the void, Rothko can at times be downright bombastic. Martin is more humane and in some way stronger: smaller in scale, indifferent to sublimity (though her paintings achieve it). It's the difference, perhaps, between Lowell and Bishop.

"Yet there is no doubt that Martin's work will always be caviar -- the very palest of pale fish roe -- to the general. Who better, then, to serve as my guardian angel? The artist would no doubt be appalled to hear it, but admiring her work aloud is now a fail-safe way for the upwardly mobile poseur to signal intellectual depth and all-round ahead-of-the-curveness -- like subscribing to ArtForum and actually reading it. Martin is the sort of artist show-offs show off about, know-it-alls know about. I think I like her -- the whole chaste package -- because she was ... so seemingly unencumbered with envy or the need to strategise. Thinking about her has a soothing effect -- like imagining myself reincarnated as a smooth and shiny pebble, glinting in the sunlight at the bottom of a cold, clear mountain stream ... "

from Terry Castle, "Travels with My Mom", London Review of Books, 16 August 2007. (NOTE: Terry Castle has a blog at terry-castle-blog.blogspot.com.)

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