**** ‘Agnes Martin’ at Tate Modern, London
Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday, 1999, Tate / National Galleries of Scotland, © estate of Agnes Martin.
I recently wrote a short article about the relationships between female artists, museums and audience numbers, in which I discussed how the public are statistically unbiased towards men; unlike many western museums. Audiences actually want to see the fearless art created by women who are unafraid to challenge traditions in a historically masculine field. But not all of these female artists are, or were, as publicly exposed as the likes of Marina Abramović and Tracey Emin. Agnes Martin, for example, embraced a solitary life, but her work still had a significant impact on other artists. Her summer retrospective at the Tate Modern explores the full breadth of her career, from the early naturalistic landscapes to the uniform abstract canvases she became most famous for.
Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1977, watercolour and graphite on paper, 22.9 x 22.9 cm, Private Collection. Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery, © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Martin’s experimental work in New York is particularly interesting. Burning Tree, with its metal-tipped prong-like branches, is one of a number of sculptural pieces inspired by nature. It’s certainly not something I expected from an artist so fixated on grids and linework, but then geometry and symmetry seem to dominate Martin’s forms even with they are based on organic objects. I also did not anticipate such a warm atmosphere throughout the exhibition, and by that, I mean that I expected such minimalist canvases to lack much of an emotive impact. Some parts of the show did seem rather cold and unfeeling - the 12 near-identical white panels known as The Islands, for instance - but Martin’s delicate use of luminous colour and subtle alterations between works in a series are surprisingly calming.
I should also mention the concept of a retrospective within a retrospective, which becomes apparent in a room filled with drawings executed between 1952 and 2004, the year of Martin’s death. It’s a lot to take in one go, but if you’re interested in the development of an artist’s style over time, then this is a fascinating inclusion.
Agnes Martin, Untitled #1, 2003, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day, 1973, Parasol Press, Ltd. © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Throughout the galleries, the exhibition narration connects Martin’s artistic position to her personal state of mind at the time. She suffered from schizophrenia as an adult, and her obsession with the perfect composition often meant that she destroyed her own works if they did not entirely satisfy. I can see how these associations might distract from Martin’s natural talent, but I see no problem in mentioning these backgrounds if they allow the visitor to understand the artist’s thought processes and feel more connected to the work itself. As someone who often struggles with abstract minimalism, I certainly found myself seeing everything a little more clearly. And who is going to argue with that?
Rating: **** - These simple works feel entirely different in the flesh and I’m ashamed to have left it so long after the exhibition opening to visit.
‘Agnes Martin’ is on at Tate Modern until 11th October 2015. All images are courtesy of the Tate.