Hidden Worlds: Agnes Martin and the Unrepresentable

The Agnes Martin exhibitions at the Tate Modern in 2015 and at the LACMA in 2016 showed two explorations of the abstract artist, while both exploring questions of beauty and expression. Martin only decided to become an artist when she was around thirty years old and although her earlier works are more figurative, her development in abstract expressionism and a more minimalist style characterised her later and most iconic work. In 1967, Martin left her home in New York to travel across North America in hope of finding solitude and reflection, and later lived completely alone in a log house in New Mexico. This extreme reclusiveness largely influenced Martin’s art. In the 1960s she began to draw and paint grids: softly pencilled lines, mathematically proportioned on pieces of paper and then on larger canvases. But what did these repetitive lines mean?

Through lines like these, Martin expresses a kind of metamorphosis where simple depictions grow to have expansive meanings. Martin said that she had been thinking of the innocence of trees when the vision of the grid came into her mind. Although she was influenced by nature, her paintings don’t represent anything in the natural world; instead they are responses to how she saw her surroundings. Martin’s paintings do not represent concrete objects, rather she interprets her surroundings and transforms them into abstract concepts such as ‘summer,’ ‘aspirations’, emotions, and ideas that are made manifest through visual depictions.

For a newcomer to her work,‘The Islands’ room at the Tate, painted in 1979, can be the most impactful. The group of paintings consists of twelve large canvases of white acrylic and varying horizontal lines in graphite. The paintings demonstrate her transition of form to bands of parallel horizontal lines rather than the softer grids of her earlier work. The almost indistinguishable pencil marks and subtle palette of white and grey in the paintings defy interpretation. The paintings work together in the single room to hint at something ungraspable, like a fleeting emotion or memory.

Martin constantly questioned the objectivity of beauty. She asked if a rose was beautiful, and then asked if a rose was still beautiful if hidden from view behind her back. She then stated ‘it is not the rose that is beautiful, the beauty is in your mind.’ In her painting ‘The Rose’, the viewer must search their own imagination for what they think a rose should be to fill the blank canvas before them. This work, as well as the twelve paintings in ‘The Islands’ series demonstrates the notion of subjective beauty.

When looking at Martin’s paintings and drawings almost a year later at LACMA, the transformative nature of her work again struck me. Martin’s paintings may appear to be merely horizontal lines, yet they are subtle, beautiful, powerful, and honest all at the same time. Martin’s work represents her spiritual journey, her perception of nature and human happiness being pulled along by the horizontal pencil strokes on the beam of life. They show that beauty is an awareness in the mind and not created in the terms of the aesthetic standard of a public gallery. Both in the Tate Modern and LACMA the paintings work together to surround the viewer with emotion. Martin talks about her work as a combination of ‘merging and formlessness,’ images that connect with the viewer and that transcend constructs and form. Her works are ultimately a liberation; they make the viewer realise the ability to see anything as beautiful.

Agnes Martin, 'Rose', 1966. Credit: Guggenheim Foundation

Exhibition Review by Lili Fletcher, first year History of Art