The almost empty paintings of Agnes Martin took on a new meaning after a visit to her show at the Guggenheim Museum. Seeing work from her entire career was like lifting a veil of ignorance: so here is the real Agnes Martin in all her profoundly real and difficult work. Difficult, because she came upon her art after a real struggle. She seems to have been waiting for the epiphany, the feeling of finding what she was seeking. Once she knew what she was doing, she did it with conviction and strength.
I used the word empty just now because that what I once thought of these paintings. They seemed so patently obvious that I passed them by. Lines against a white or grey background seemed to hold no mysterious meaning, no obvious content. Of course, that was error. They are full of feeling of which emptiness is perhaps one fraction of that feeling. One has to empty oneself of one’s preconceptions, worries, fears, and, in particular, one’s notions about art. That doesn’t happen in a few moments. But after spending some time relishing this show that occupies all the levels of the main building, one realizes that her art can be dense, moving, deeply intentional, happy and healing. There is something of a Buddhist in these paintings that signify soul, purity, otherworldliness, a state of intense contemplation of nothingness.
A video shows her painting a large canvass yellow. She uses a fairly narrow brush. It will take her a long time to cover the entire canvass. She says, “Painting is work.” But she uses no shortcuts. If she wanted to make a canvass yellow, she could have used a spray gun or a wider brush. But it wouldn’t be the same. Her large monochromatic paintings, especially the all white ones, have the feeling of being worked. They have texture; we are aware the their being painfully painted. There is the suggestion that she may have been painting something out, or over. There are vague shadows underneath the whiteness. The whiteness is the result of a struggle. Maybe there was something underneath that she didn’t want to live with or express, a feeling she whited out. These whitenesses are not pristine purity. They are the whiteness of a soul that has been purified. Making her paintings was her way of purifying her soul; it was how she came to terms with herself and the world around her. Her paintings are her testament to that struggle and that purity. She made them for us: that was her gift. Through them we see what it is she wanted us to see.
Towards the end of her life her paintings seem to be happier. She makes smaller paintings because she can no longer lug them around her studio. But they are lighter, funnier, revealing a spirit at rest. She says she doesn’t paint the stuff around her, landscapes or things. She paints lines. What could be funnier or happier than that?
The Agnes Martin show runs to January 11, 2017.