Agnes Martin at LACMA

Hosted by

As you walk into Agnes Martin at LACMA, you are immediately faced with a choice. Turn left and go east, into the history of her early years of living and painting in New York City. Turn right, or west, and you enter her later years of living in New Mexico.

The difference between the two is as clear as any of her precise line drawings. Martin's urban paintings and drawings from the late 1950's or 1960's are grids delineated in pencil on paint, executed thinly in shades of putty, fog, mud or mist. Exquisite, precise, poetic and contained.

Paintings made in the early 1970's in her New Mexico studios brim with broad bands of pale blue, dusty pink, cloudy white, citrusy lemon. Without losing any of their dedication to discipline, they breathe more deeply and so do we, as viewers.

Agnes Martin, "Untitled #4," c. 1975
Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 inches
Los angels County Museum of Art
© 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo courtesy Pace Gallery

This smart geographical arrangement was conceived by LACMA director Michael Govan, curator of the exhibition, with Jennifer King as associate curator. He has added a dozen works to this show, which I saw last summer at the Tate Modern in London, where it originated. One of those paintings is a gift made in Govan's honor by Arne and Milly Glimcher. (Glimcher's Pace Gallery represents the Martin estate and loaned a number of works to the show.) This newest addition to LACMA's collection, Untitled #4 (1975), vibrates with radiant sandy peach and sky blue bands vertically aligned in Martin's typically square format. It hangs opposite LACMA's pale adobe composition of wide horizontal bands.

Agnes Martin near her house in Cuba, New Mexico, 1974
Photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni

Govan emphasizes this fact of the West since Martin herself felt it to be a place of solace and serenity where she could live a life of spiritual commitment. An enlarged photograph portrays the artist wearing a brimmed hat, sitting on rock overlooking a broad expanse of valley in New Mexico. Just around the corner from this picture hang a spectacular suite of six paintings in bands of sheerest possible un-color: blue, yellow, breathed onto the surfaces with the telling title: With My Back to the World (1999). (Martin also had a history in Los Angeles, showing with the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in 1967 and thereafter with Margo Leavin Gallery. Her first retrospective was shown at the old Pasadena Museum of Art in 1973.)

Agnes Martin, "Untitled," 2004
Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches
© 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo courtesy Pace Gallery

Govan, who showed Martin's work in 2004 when director of DIA:Beacon, understands the constraints of showing such work. One of the foremost practioners of minimal abstraction, Martin brings our attention to the surface of each canvas with the gleam of a graphite line or the nubby quality of fabric. At Govan's insistance, almost none of the paintings are under glass. Yes, they may be less secure but they are also being seen as the artist meant them to be seen, which is as it should be.

Agnes Martin, "Untitled," c. 1955
Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 66 1/4 inches
(c) 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo courtesy Pace Gallery

Martin (1912-2004) was born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, then lived in Vancouver, Canada but moved to Bellingham, Washington in 1931 where she embarked upon her education to become a teacher of art. She was searching in those years, studying at Teachers College, New York in 1942, then the University of New Mexico in Taos. She shifted direction and made the commitment to be an artist rather than a teacher and became interested in the Zen teachings of D.T. Suzuki. In the 1950's, she spent more time in New Mexico, teaching and taking classes but came back to New York in 1957 at the suggestion of her dealer Betty Parsons, who also represented peers Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Jackson Pollock. Though she later destroyed much of her early work, this exhibition includes a fascinating range of art from that period including soft-edged biomorphic and geometric abstractions, drawings and a few surprising pieces of assemblage sculpture.

Agnes Martin, "Untitled," c. 1957 Oil on canvas, 34 x 34 inches
© 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo courtesy Pace Gallery

Martin lived in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan, near artists Ad Reinhardt, Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly who encouraged her as she evolved her method of thin grids applied to monochrome panels of largely neutral paint in nearly invisible thin lines. They were included in Systemic, the game-changing 1966 exhibition at the Guggenheim that brought her success and acclaim.

It was too much for her, however. She struggled throughout her life with schizophrenia and the hidden fact of her own homosexuality. In 1967, she gave away her art supplies and drove across the United States and Canada for two years, returning eventually to New Mexico, settling in Cuba and later in Galisteo.

Agnes Martin, "Gratitude," 2001
Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches
© 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo courtesy Pace Gallery

She returned to making art in 1974 and initially explored the use of palest blue and pink. Martin continually returned to her vast palette of silvery gray tones with occasional works of joyful color such as the limey Gratitude (2001).

Martin's paintings were based on her own mathematical equations that enabled a process of decision making that would be orderly, not chaotic. She did not, however, ascribe to the intellectual remove of fellow minimalists. From the 1970's onward, she referenced love, beauty and transcendence in the titles of her paintings and her own writings were influenced by her studies of Buddism and Taoism. (In the London exhibition, a 1963 grid painting was executed in gold leaf, a gorgeous piece that recalled temples and devotion and reflected light.)

There is little acknowledgement of Martin's biographical details in this exhibition. However, you don't need to know her life story in order to see this marvelous retrospective as the journey of a woman searching for and finding peace despite her inner turmoil. It opens to the public on Sunday and is on view through September 11.