Forcing Quiet: Notes on the Painting of Agnes Martin

A sepia portrait of Agnes Martin next to her canvases.


Agnes Martin was one of the lesser-known abstract painters of the second New York School. This is largely because she was a woman working in a male-dominated field. It’s also because her paintings didn’t really look like other AbEx paintings so people didn’t know what to make of them. It wasn’t until after the minimalist craze of the sixties that people started really taking her seriously and calling her a pioneer and a feminist icon and such.

Agnes Martin's painting "Untitled 1977", depicting yellowish, salmon, and soft blue stripes.
Untitled, 1977


Martin’s compositions are invariably rectilinear and orthogonal. She started off with pencilled grids but towards the end of her career (the period I am most interested in) she settled on horizontal and vertical pinstripes. Her colours are muted pales and pastels. The scale—middling. Not large. Not small.

Agnes Martin's painting "Untitled 1977", depicting yellow stripes.
Untitled, 1977


Agnes Martin uses paint in thin, transparent washes with traces of the underdrawing still visible. No bravura or technical virtuosity. Just cool, quiet regularity without being too evidently adroit. The reiteration is mechanical but not mechanically reiterative. There are exquisitely subtle modulations but whether they are unconscious or staged is impossible to say.

Agnes Martin's painting "Untitled 5", depicting blue, salmon, and yellow stripes.
Untitled 5, 1998


Much is made of Martin’s Buddhism. In her personal writings she often talks about haiku and the profundity of things that are ‘simple’. There’s a long and fascinating history of aesthetics in Asia which carries on the Buddhist theme of everything-in-nothing and nothing-in-everything. Zen is meant to remind us that nothing, including our sense of self, is as real as we suppose it to be. Perhaps Martin’s work is a coy attempt to sneak these ideas into a western, iconic framework. What does a ‘zen’ modern abstract painting look like? Stripes, apparently.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting thinner stripe,s of yellow, salmon, and blue.
Untitled #9, 1999


If we look at Agnes Martin’s work today, it can be a challenge to look past the broadness, the generic-ness of her chosen format. Stripes are practically a cliché of modernist painting at this point. We’ve seen it done a million times before, from the work of Paul Klee to Sean Scully. Stripes always lend themselves to a square canvas. They have a lyrical effect because they echo the shape of the support. It’s one of the most salient and well established graphic devices of modernism. By the same token it’s also probably the device we all want riddance of.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting salmon and blue stripes.
Untitled, 1974


Or perhaps we are meant to accept the stripe by virtue of its consequent modesty. After all, Agnes Martin’s compositions are not so much compositions as systems. There are zero shapes or overlapping areas; just scalar divisions of surface. One gets the sense that any mark, or any part, could be exchanged by and for any other. Every aspect is as changeable as clothing.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting violet, blue, salmon, and yellow stripes.
Untitled #2, 1992


The format is a reduction to generality. One has the impression of two or maybe three colours happening until the entire square is filled, subsuming every aspect; it’s structure, it’s dynamic it’s pictorialism. Often line seems an afterthought even though, upon reflection it’s obvious that line is what’s making everything happen. They seem to recall elegiac watercolours representing old photographs in which light glancing across the crinkled surfaces interrupts the image.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting salmon and teal stripes.
Untitled #9, 1995


Take any two people into an Agnes Martin retrospective and it can be amazing to see the diverging opinions. Some will swoon and say things like ‘sublime!’, and ‘so blown away’. Whereas others will simply make jokes about beach towels. The suggestion of mysticism for a contemporary audience tends to either reassure or disturb depending on one’s individual persuasion. Generally, people find it easier to accept abstraction if there’s some kind of occult prophylactic. ‘She painted them while meditating,’ we are told, and we either shrug and say “So what?” or we nod and say, “Obviously.”

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting salmon and light teal stripes.
Untitled #9, 1995


Martin’s use of colour is arguably where she shows her true skill. It’s subtle, poetic, and because of the broadness, the monotony of the format, our awareness of the colour is especially heightened. Martin often primed her canvases with stark matte: white gesso, overpainted with the most delicately shaded hues. The colours always have a strong tonal equivalency that suggests ambience or light in the dour. Taken in isolation, they are muddy. But when placed adjacent to one another they have an intense luminosity. I think there is actually something very moving about Martin’s colour; a sort of musical quality. It feels so agreeable and frank—bright and clean without being overtly naturalistic or artificially lurid.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting blue and salmon stripes, this time horizontal.
Untitled #4, 1975


There’s almost nothing loose about these paintings. The stripes hang like plates before a void, the crisp penciled outlines like stitching incorporating the surface. Can this work even be described as properly abstract? Rather it feels concrete, defined and unadjusted in any minor way. The interlocking, even symmetry of the horizontal stripes. The rigid repetition of the elements elides a certain probity of touch, a brief eloquence that goes right up to the edge.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting thin violet stripes and thick, pale yellow ones.
Untitled #15 (Peace), 1996


Usually I don’t like pastels. To me they symbolise a general and kitschy sense of middle class taste disguised as femininity. Reds, greens, blues, browns: everything is suddenly much more agreeable and compatible when it’s all mixed together with white and grey. Am I a philistine to suggest that it’s perhaps less a case of actual color and more of tone, of light and shadow, everything softened to ideality? In Agnes Martin’s case however, pastels are combined into a projected and inclusive value. Their coalescence is gradual and slow. What a victory to get such a powerful colour effect out of such a limited colour-key.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting blue and yellow stripes.
Untitled, 1998


Today, the sensibility that I admire above all in painting is one of restraint. Martin’s technique is relaxed. The marks don’t draw attention to themselves. There’s no De-Kooning-style expressionism. In fact there’s no gesture at all. Everything is about directness and simplicity. No single element or unit of the painting announces itself ahead and above the others. Everything is a bisecting line and this makes it difficult to focus on one part of the painting as a ‘perspective’. Wherever the eye lands, it is quickly ushered across the field.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting thick light blue stripes, and thinner salmon and yellow ones.
Untitled #2, 1992


It’s difficult to know when feeling hardens into something else. The reason I’m untroubled by Agnes Martin’s perfunctory ways is because for me, a painting is, above all, a tastefully decorative wall object. Of course it can take on other functions, other traditions, but it has no responsibility to them (nothing is worse than a failed subject painting). What matters more than anything is that a painting look good as it hangs on a wall. Even the image itself should be a secondary concern. Painting is above all a pictorial object that answers to and exalts the external force of the wall: the lateral, upright plane.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting thick salmon, yellow, and blue stripes.
Where Babies Come From, 1999


Agnes Martin was a solitary figure. Much of her life was spent living in the desert like Georgia O’Keefe. She seems to have had a troubled adolescence, diagnosed with schizophrenia and receiving electroshock therapy when she was just a girl. This piece of trivia is especially dear to the various critics who discovered her. Like Alice Neal or Frida Kahlo (or Louise Bourgeois or Yayoi Kusama, I could go on) she easily fits the stereotype of the psychologically intense woman artist, using her paintings as personal therapy—as a curative process.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting thin yellow lines, and thick blue and violet ones.
Innocent Living, 1999


There’s a cultural tendency to make biographical the achievement of modern painters. Is art inseparable from the cult of the artist? Beyond the mental exercises of art criticism it’s hard to disentangle our notions of painting from the well-worn clichés that are frequently imposed on us by the culture industry. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort though. Scrupulous attention to the details of Picasso’s sex life has all but killed good writing about Cubism for the last thirty years. We should take such an example as a warning.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting thin blue lines and thick yellow ones.
Perfect Happiness, 1999


Psychoanalysis is the dominant religion of our time. Whether we are right or left, old or young, we all worship at the altar of Freudianism and victim culture. Don’t get me wrong: next to Marx I consider Freud to be one of the most revolutionary thinkers of the twentieth century. But as of late his philosophical system has been vulgarized into something really horrible and chic. When did it becomes impossible for people to believe that anyone could be interesting or creative without having suffered through some sort of trauma? In short, haven’t we been socialized to conflate and equate artistic creativity with sexual abuse? I feel it’s really important to resist this kind of thinking. It’s true, many artists including Agnes Martin suffered horribly, but to focus on victimisation and horror seems the worst kind of essentialism and reduces the bravery and skill of these women to a ghoulish political pose.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting thin blue, salmon, and yellow lines.
Untitled, 1999-2000.


I think of Martin not so much as an abstractionist actually and more of a neo-dadaist—a maker of inscrutable, mute objects. She easily fits into a class of midcentury (often female) modern artists who radically pared down their medium to a kind insouciant materialistic exercise. Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk would do similar things with sonics, acoustics and choreography. Taking the reductive strictures of high modernism and pursuing them to a logical razors edge. A painting by Martin instantly puts me in mind of Eliane Radigue, the pioneer of ambient drone music: music as a pulse, an evanescence of sound.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting white, yellow, blue, and violet stripes, all of them quite pale.
Untitled #13, 1980


I think it’s a problem to try and equate the minimalist approach with spirituality or self-help. These are consumer fads that don’t help to explain the work’s staying power. What I respond to in Agnes Martin is the way she turns impersonality into a harmonious structure. The marks seem not only anonymous but autonomous—the very opposite of a personal autograph or mark making a la Manet. They don’t remind me of anyone else’s handling including similar minimalist painters like Robert Ryman. And this is important because, historically, painters are always trying very hard to make it seem like their marks mean something, to emote, to symbolize, when in actual fact they mean absolutely nothing at all. Does this sound moralistic? After all, it’s common to see loose marks described as romantic and imprecise whereas sharp ones are classical and architectural. Neither is intrinsically better than the other. But I’ve come to prefer the straightforward approach.

A painting by Agnes Martin depicting thin violet lines and thick blue ones, both quite pale.
Innocent Love, 1999


Agnes Martin obviously owes a debt to Rothko and Newman (and Mondrian, Reinhardt, etc.) Yet it occurs now a hypothetical link that was never necessary. The several areas of each painting are planes that are in an old sense Cubist, although considered an enlargement, close up and flat in a more recent way than we are used to seeing. The appearance of tessellation, of receding and advancing areas is due to a chromatic reticence rather than any overlapping planes or relief. The low contrast of the florid ribbons simulates an optical flicker, a visual rhythm similar to the effect of impressionism with its sense of environmental projection, of internal light bleeding into the light of its surround.

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