“It’s easy to walk past an Agnes Martin,” says Frances Morris, co-curator of the artist’s Tate Modern retrospective that opens today. Such is the subtlety of her paintings: taut graphite lines and pallid washes of pink, yellow and blue. Martin’s pared down compositions reduced painting to a bare minimum with a handful of pencils, some masking tape and more water than paint, and while her work is often celebrated as minimalist, she resisted the label’s lofty undertones in favour of expressionism’s gut instincts.
Her signature grids and diluted colours may seem at odds with the mostly male school of abstract expressionism she considered herself part of, but upon closer inspection, visible brushstrokes and a very physical relationship with her canvases mean her material restraint and tightly drawn lines set limits without eschewing the human hand and the integral surface of modern American painting. Throughout her life Martin suffered debilitating episodes of schizophrenia and her careful, calm paintings belie her ongoing struggles both spiritual and personal. As much as her work was a kind of controlled escapism from her fragile mental health, it was first and foremost about painting itself. Finding solace in the repetitive nature of her work, after a laboured mathematical process of mapping out her compositions, she painted fluidly and quickly, tissuing off any drips.
A late bloomer, Martin did not decide to become an artist until she was 30. Her retrospective is the first time her work has been exhibited in London since 1977. Spanning more than five decades, it follows two periods of what the curators refer to as “the journey to the grid.” The first half unveils little-known paintings and experiments in sculpture from Martin’s ten years in New York before she stopped painting temporarily and decamped to the desert in New Mexico in search of solitude (she lived alone all her life). The second traces her return to art in 1973 right up until her death in 2004.
Agnes Martin’s paintings are studies in contradiction; they somehow speak of something otherworldly whilst being pure works of the human mind. The influence of eastern thought including Taoism and Buddhism is palpable throughout, but nowhere is this more apparent than in The Islands series from 1979. The artist insisted these 12 large white paintings always be shown together and walking into the room you can see why. This is the climax of the exhibition. Rather like Rothko’s pulsating fields of colour, Martin’s white works envelope you in their meditative, hypnotic energy, and in them you can read the white heat of New Mexico’s expansive desert landscape.
Outside of The Islands however, the stillness of much of her work means the exhibition can feel quite static at times, and the alchemy and mysticism so associated with Martin is, like her white-washed grids, sometimes barely visible. That is until the final room brings together her last works. These start to break the silence she had so meticulously pursued.
Martin may have been vulnerable in her life but the show testifies to her single-mindedness and strength in art. Even on her deathbed she was a ruthless self-editor, and her dying wishes were for a friend to destroy two paintings left on the floor of her studio. But her remaining and final painting, made mere months before she died at the age of 92, hangs triumphantly, pairing looser, stirring bands of cloudy grey and white that seem to signal the “journey to the grid” is perhaps finally over.
Agnes Martin is at Tate Modern, London 3 June – 11 October