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Agnes Martin: Let's Set the Romance Aside

While, such supplementary materials as biographical references, quotes from the artist, anecdotes and speculative narratives meant to establish context for the audience, might initially seem benign,  or even helpful — they function as filters redirecting the viewer’s expectations. This is especially true in the case of  works, which are non-objective and wordless. The viewer’s job is to see the artist’s work,  rather than  come to some didactic conclusion about formalism, or the artist’s romantic longing for solitude.  Therefore, what Agnes Martin’s  works demand  of their viewer is patience, attentiveness  and a willingness to  reflect upon what is there. This task is made much more difficult by monographic exhibitions such as “The Distillation of Color” at Pace Gallery in NYC, which includes paintings from 1970s-through the 90s and is circumscribed by a thesis of its own. 

What the exhibition “The Distillation of Color” would have the viewer focus on is Martin’s use of color, or as the attentive viewer will soon learn, colorlessness. If ignored, what the show actually affords the viewer is an opportunity to become aware  of how Martin’s painting slowly disassembles, only to  form a coherent whole, again. In the process, the viewer may become familiar with how Martin exploits line, edge, horizontality, verticality, tone, hue, surface, gesture, etc.  The resulting generalized description of Martin’s paintings notes is that they consist of fields or bands of thinly painted translucent color, whose palette is limited to muted black, grey, pink, pale yellow and blue. Add to this, her judicious use of thinly drawn pencil lines and grids. 

Given her limited vocabulary, Martin’s paintings at first, appear to be simple formalist propositions emphasizing flatness and all-over-ness — yet, with time, it becomes apparent they are not that simple. Despite the extreme limits she places upon herself — from painting to painting, she explores the haptic nature of her materials and their opticality. By differentiating between chance and determination - between invention and repetition – between process and manner she exploits the possibilities that lie between these terms. Another thing she seems intent on making us aware of is that there is no possibility of change or correction — one moment of inattentiveness on her part, and she would have to start all over again. In this sense, Martin has both the aesthetic, and the discipline of a Zen master.  


So, while Martin’s non-relational compositions and soft focus, may bring to mind Tonalism from the 19th century, or AbEx, and Minimalism, such affinities are the product of the viewer’s knowledge. What may actually, be drawn from Martin’s work is her concern for articulating her sensibility and intuitions within the constraints she has imposed on herself. Consequently, her painting exists as a perceptual and cognitive event - as a moment within a continuum, which she has made discernable, so that the viewer might unfold its aesthetic, and emotive content. 

- Saul Ostrow, May 20, 2021

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