moving forward while being asked to stand back
Michael Govan, curator, with Jennifer King Agnes Martin / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 24-September 11, 2016. I saw this work at a preview on Wednesday, April 20, 2016
I’ve long been intrigued by the paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin, and yet I’ve never known quite how to talk about her powerful art. Her grids, lined eggs, triangles, circles, and numerous other geometrical forms depend almost entirely, in their abstraction and near-minimalist existences, on how each individual emotionally perceives them, and each viewing might change the way even that individual relates to the art.
Long before Howard Fox and I first saw her at a Hirschhorn Museum talk in Washington, D.C.—one the most memorable artist talks I’ve ever experienced—we had imagined her to be, as her art and her legend might suggest, a quiet, reserved figure, perhaps even unwilling to openly express herself except through her work.
She was anything but that: a small woman—smiling, open, often giggly, even slapping her thighs with great delight—she was an absolutely delightful human being, a woman you wanted immediately to embrace as a fun-loving friend. And having “met” her, so to speak, I changed my entire view of her art. The carefully composed compositions, dominated by her hand-drawn graphite and ink lines, painted over with various hues of oil paint and washes, suddenly seemed to open up into welcoming expanses that represented a coding of the natural worlds, first Taos, then New York City, and later her isolated adobe home in New Mexico, that—if not representational—certainly bore an emotional response to nature similar to the art of Georgia O’Keeffe, who spent much of her life in the very same spaces.
What the lovely new retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—the first since her death in 2004—reveals is both her transformation from the biomorphic forms she was creating in the 1950s, such as Untitled from c. 1955, but also the consistency of her art, despite the long hiatus from it she took from 1967-1974. As CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director, and the curator of this show, Michael Govan suggested in a brief introduction to the press, one might take a tour through this exhibition from either direction through the galleries, from the beginning of her career to the end, or backwards, from the end to its beginning—perhaps both equally revelatory. I took the more traditional road, but realized that the very last works of the show, such as Affection (2001), Gratitude (2001), Homage to Life (2003), and The Sea (2003), although sometimes smaller in size, revealed the same kind of graphic attention to the grid and detail as did her early great works such as Words (1961), Little Sister (1962), The Egg (1983), and the splendiferous river-blue Summer (1964).
In between were equally masterful, but quieter pastel paintings such as Untitled #2 (1974) and Untitled #4 (1975), the latter of which will now join the LACMA collection as a gift of Milly and Arne Glimcher, as a tribute to Michael Govan’s leadership of the museum.
This time, observing so many wondrous works of Martin’s career, I was not simply awed by the precision and detail of her art, but was far more stunned by their simple beauty: whatever emotion might wash over you as an individual, they are beings, just like the artist, which you want to embrace—which perhaps is why the guards warned viewers time and again not to cross a small line marked upon the floor before most of these paintings. One wants always to move closer and closer to these paintings, but their survival, obviously, depends upon standing a bit back from their somewhat delicate surfaces to witness their overall effect.
Los Angeles, April 23, 2016