Thursday, April 6, 2017

In Search of Beauty and Happiness

A random encounter with a work from Agnes Martin at the occasion of a gallery or museum visit can be a lost opportunity. Time and background knowledge about the artist and her body of work are essential to appreciate the austere compositions. In the spirit, my latest reading is Agnes Martin, a book published at the occasion of the retrospective exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern in 2015. It includes abundant photographs, excerpts from the artist's writings and thirteen essays scattered throughout the monograph edited by the co-curators Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell.

Following the introduction which defines the breadth of the exhibition, assembling works from the early to the late period of Agnes Martin's career, a biography also written by Tiffany Bell provides a concurrent history of  the artist's life and of the evolution of her art, on a background of poverty and mental illness. Frances Morris  introduces the artist's work in light of the abstract expressionist movement and of her interaction with her peers. Christina Bryan Rosenberger who wrote "Drawing the Line", a book concentrating on the early works from Martin, contributes a short piece about Islands No.4, 1961, while historian and art critic Richard Tobin explores the whole series. Rachel Barker, Tate's Paintings Conservator, presents a detailed technical analysis of Morning, 1965 and Marion Ackermann comments on Untitled #5, 1998. In her essay "In Pursuit of the Neutral: Agnes Martin's Shimmering Line", Anna Lovatt discusses the contribution of Agnes Martin to the Graphic Art and Briony Fer, her use of geometric shapes in "Who's Afraid of Triangles?". The slow discovery of Martin's works in Europe is described by Maria Mȕller-Schareck, starting with a first painting shown in Zurick in 1960. A collection of portraits selected by Lena Fritsch accompanied by informative comments, sheds some light on the artist's personal life. It includes photographs by  Diane ArbusAnnie Leibovitz and Hans Namuth. Agnes Martin's spiritual influences are approached by Jacquelynn Baas, author of Smile of the Buddha and the German artist Rosemarie Trockel contributes a short poem.
Agnes Martin's writings provide a glimpse into her inner life and the sources of her inspiration. Selected excerpts enrich the reproductions of her works. For example, On a Clear Day, 1973, a Portfolio of 30 screenprints, is introduced by a short quote:
"Art work that is completely abstract - free from any expression of the environment is like music and can be responded to in the same way. Our response to line and tone and color is the same as our response to sounds. And like music abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning for us that is beyond expression in words."... Agnes Martin, (October 15, 1975)
She also expresses her thoughts about art in the essay "Beauty is the Mystery of Life", 1989.
More quotes are found in the book:
"When you find out what you like, you're really finding about yourself... people who look at my painting say that it makes them feel happy like the feeling when you wake up in the morning - And happiness is the goal isn't it?"
" My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, nor anything - no forms"
And to conclude, on the back of the book's jacket: "Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in my mind."
Through the essays from scholars, the book offers different perspectives on Agnes Martin's sometimes esoteric work. Ultimately, the artist herself provides the key to her legacy, result of a lifelong search for beauty and happiness.

illustrations: photographs from Tate's website copyright Estate of Agnes Martin 

"Morning", 1965
"Happy Holiday", 1999
"Untitled", 1965

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