Covering the breadth of her career, Agnes Martin, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) exhibition of the late artist’s works that opens April 24, illustrates how her creativity was not boxed in her restrained grid and stripes style. The exhibit features about 100 of her square canvases covered with mesmerizing grids and ethereal stripes that she conveyed in countless ways.
This extensive exhibition is a comprehensive retrospective of Martin’s long career since before her death at 92 in 2004. It was organized by London’s Tate Modern in collaboration with the LACMA, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, and New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The exhibit already appeared in the European museums and will be at LACMA through Sept. 11, 2016, before moving on to NYC in October.
“As the only West Coast venue in the United States, LACMA is pleased to present the work of an artist who was so fundamentally inspired and influenced by the landscape of the American Southwest,” said Michael Govan, LACMA’s CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. He also acknowledged that his attention to this exhibit was personal. Govan studied the artist as a student and worked with her in New York.
Agnes Martin, a Canadian-born abstract artist, was one of the few prominent female artists in the prevailingly masculine U.S. art world when she first came to prominence during the 1950s and 1960s. Her valuable works hang in many top contemporary art museums and one 1964 example fetched $6.5 million in a 2014 auction.
Martin’s style was deceptive. It is easy to dismiss it as painting what seems at first glance to be the same thing over and over again (They are largely untitled, so essentially the names are the same too). Many of the six-feet square works look like plain canvases with subtle washes of earth tones from a distance. However, they are far more nuanced up close, where her meticulously drawn horizontal and vertical gridlines and other decorative elements can be seen. Her later works abandon the earth tones for vibrant lines of color.
The other advantage of taking a closer look at Agnes Martin’s work is searching for the imperfections. These “flaws” in her hand-drawn lines, slippage of paint over borders or uneven strokes give the paintings character and allow them to breathe.
The exhibit installation at LACMA is divided by work she did early in her career in the Eastern U.S. versus work she did out west in her later years. Even though it is organized chronologically, Govan noted that the “exhibition is very symmetrical, you can go either way.” As appropriate given her career “hiatus” when she left NY and traveled around the country before moving to New Mexico, the two sections of the exhibit are bisected by an area that shows screen prints she published in 1973 that permutations on the grids that are overall repetitive but distinct individually.
The earlier works are often abstract forms of hillsides, field patterns, trees devolved into flat shapes and geometry in place of nature. For example, one conveying white stone is basically a solidly covered canvas from a distance, but a tight latticework of pencil lines up close.
Of note in the early section are some collage pieces she did with timber, knobs and other pieces she found. There is also a strange eye-catching sculpture, Burning Tree, with wood branches tipped with metal.
The western section of the exhibition features 1974 through the early 2000s, and show how life in the desert changes her perspective and painting. The canvases in the last three decades of her career feature expansive stripes that run off the canvas showing an infinite landscape or visual line. This includes multipart series like With My Back to the World (1997), which was designed as a textured grouping with subtle recurring patterns, but each stands on its own.
The impressionist lightness of many later works provides a great contrast to the low-key colors of the early pieces. There is a Zen-like, meditative feel with the colors leaping off the backgrounds and hovering in the air.
Jennifer King, associate LACMA curator, adds, “To appreciate Agnes Martin’s subtle aesthetic, one has to view her artwork in person. This exhibition offers an unparalleled opportunity to see so many works from throughout her career in dialogue with one another,” and shows how Agnes Martin’s restrained grid style did not box in her creativity.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Preview visit to Exhibition April 20
Los Angeles Country Museum of Art: Agnes Martin
Guggenheim: Collection Online: Agnes Martin
Wall Street Journal: Abstract Painter Agnes Martin, on View on Two Continents
Photos by Dyanne Weiss