Review of Agnes Martin at Tate Modern, London

It is understated beauty that pervades the Agnes Martin retrospective at Tate Modern. Immediately upon entering the exhibition, Martin’s notable style is presented with her large-scale striped paintings, which are at once unassuming and consuming. Awash with sherbet-coloured peach and milky blue, the canvases evoke a sense of serenity through their subtleness.

Awareness of beauty was paramount to Martin’s artistic practice – perhaps it was her interest in Taoism and Zen Buddhism that balanced her work and prohibited the excessive. It was earlier in her artistic career that she more heavily traced aspects of Abstract expressionism as evidenced in her paintings embedded with biomorphic forms. The influence is not surprising considering her close friendship with Barnett Newman, and her time spent living in New York City in the late 1950s with studio neighbours including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jasper Johns. Martin herself thought her work was most closely linked to this movement.

Martin’s practice turned more geometric and sculptural as she employed different materials and found objects from the docklands around her studio. She produced grid-like and linear patterns by placing nails into wood as shown in the works in the third room, such as The Garden. These pieces carry a weight and texture rather dissimilar to her paintings, but the emotive and stylistic parallels remain. By the 1960s, as exemplified in three iconic paintings The Islands, Friendship and A Grey Stone, her repetitive gestures of linear intersections within a square format had transformed the grid into a dynamic and all-encompassing art form central to Martins aesthetic. Fine pencil lines are often present, and whilst they seem precise, the ever-so-slight imperfections reveal the artist’s hand and give the works a humane tangibility.

So fluid was her transition from painting to drawing that her works began to transcend the mediums. She repetitively used the grid, striving for perfection as she mechanically produced numerous works on paper. By this point Martin’s battle with schizophrenia had been revealed, and upon viewing her repeated patterns it is hard not to recall Yayoi Kusama with her Infinity Nets of obsessively painted dots – though Martin’s quiet and tranquil works differ greatly from Kusama’s eccentric vibrancy.

“Mindfulness”, as the curators continue to draw attention to throughout, if not expressed through the artist’s focus with the applied lines in her grid-works, comes full circle towards the end of exhibition with her grey paintings in the eighth room. The Islands in the ninth room provide a surprisingly bright contrast to her other muted paintings, and a literal highlight at the close of the exhibition. Towards the end of her life, Martin’s paintings revert back to geometric shapes in a way that shows her evolution and a return to her initial artistic format. Her body of work, although quiet and calming, holds an inherent power that makes it anything but silent.

Ashton Chandler Guyatt

Agnes Martin, until 11 October, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG.

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1. Agnes Martin, Untitled #1, 2003. Courtesy of Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.