The Agnes Martin show at Tate Modern left last weekend on the next leg of its journey to LA and then to the Guggenheim in New York. It was ‘the first retrospective of Martin’s work since 1994’, which is the year I first encountered her work. It was also the year I planned my journey to New Mexico, where eventually I got to visit her at home in Taos and talk to her about her work.
So, the Tate show then. I must admit I was so attached to the idea that some of the pieces of that 1994 retrospective – at the Whitney Museum in New York – might be shown here, that I was initially somewhat disappointed. I’ll never forget the power of the ‘blockbusters’ in that beautifully curated show, especially the large 1960s paintings such as ‘Falling Blue’, which as I remember dominated a whole wall of its own, and which you could get right up close to and experience being drawn in and totally dwarfed by. At the Tate private view, I rushed in and scanned the rooms – no big blues…
But, of course, Agnes Martin’s work is of evidence a lifetime spent, in her own words, “forever trying to paint a straight line”, of which those paintings at the Whitney were just a selection. Martin, as a rule, painted every day and though she edited much, her output was huge. Tiffany Bell, an art historian, who was co-curator on this show has been working with Pace Gallery on Martin’s catalogue raisonee, so she should know! I can’t imagine how difficult and time-consuming it has been to track down all the “Untitled” drawings and paintings from Martin’s output from over 60 years of work.
This show re-presented Agnes’ straight line attempts in a very beautifully straightforward way. The rooms were arranged more or less chronologically in a clockwise circle with a special room set aside for her series ‘The Islands’ (at 2 O’clock from the entrance), and a fabulous last room at 5 O’clock showing works since 1994 – from the last 10 years of her life. At the centre was a shrine-like room displaying a mini-retrospective of her works on paper – smaller drawings and paintings, including her last drawing in 2004, made just before she died.
As I walked this circular loop time and time again through the galleries I smiled, remembering the quote from Agnes in the last page of my book on her work:
People are made of stories, not atoms.
How true – her work shown in this exhibition shimmers and shifts as you move through the decades, but the work in the first and last galleries of the loop (room 2 and room 11) have so many synergies and elements repeated or at least reflected in them that for me, they prove her point. Triangles and dark solid shapes appear amidst the delicate ‘straight‘ lines and grids. The brushwork is more animated and seems freer than her signature well-known works. In this last room, it seemed looser in a confident way though, as if she literally was letting go.
Now I have to let the show go elsewhere and get on with my own work? Yes, except that I’m making a piece on raw canvas inspired by ‘The Islands’ 1961, which was hanging in room 4, where I spent a lot of time smiling and brimming with joy on each of my visits.
Inspired – right back where I started!
(thank you Agnes Martin…)