Agnes Martin: An Awareness of Perfection

The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Agnes Martin: An Awareness of Perfection


The rarely exhibited early paintings of Agnes Martin executed before she was recognized as a stellar American minimalist artist are being shown by the Dia:Beacon museum to mark its first anniversary in the Hudson River town of Beacon, New York.

Three galleries in the vast, skylighted building that once was a cereal- box printing plant are given over to 21 paintings by Martin, who is still working at 92 and recently had an exhibition of new paintings in New York City. The Beacon display is limited to the years 1957, when she moved from New Mexico to New York, to 1967, when she returned to live near Taos, New Mexico, for good.

This is Beacon:Dia's first temporary exhibition and will run through April 18, 2005.

Six of the Martin paintings on view that were executed between 1957 and 1960, regarded as transitional years in her art, were recently given to the museum for its permanent collection, already notable for works by Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Walter de Maria, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter, Hanne Darboven, and many other post-World War II artists.

"Agnes Martin ... Going Forward Into Unknown Territory" is a very limited view of an artist who began by painting traditional still-lifes and progressed to biomorphic abstractions. It takes up her work just when she joined a generation of non-Expressionist artists working in Manhattan whose art, rooted in geometry, was a distillation of pure forms.

She has said in one of her many pronouncements about her art that she would like her work to be recognized "as being in the classical tradition (Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese) as representing the ideal in the mind."

"It is like a memory--an awareness--of perfection," she wrote.

Martin also has described her art as memories of nature, and she has given such titles to canvases as Night Sea, Earth, The Spring, Grey Stone, The Peach, Wheat, and Flower in the Wind, although it might be difficult to connect these paintings with their titles. Aside from that, most of her paintings have a pleasant visual snap, trembling gradations of lovely color, and a refinement and purity that verges on the spiritual.

Many of the large, usually square or vertical canvases on exhibit are gridded with delicately defined lines that are subtly spaced and seem to suggest a sensibility that harks back to romanticism in art. …

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