Agnes Martin (Tate Modern, 3 June–11 October 2015)
In the ongoing round of suppressing women’s writing, so to speak, it is striking how rare a solo-female artist show is in a major institution show. In the moloch of the Tate, things are getting better — there’s the Hepworth show at Britain and the Sonia Delaunay at Modern overlapped with this. I confess to not having heard of Agnes Martin — who I guess historically fits into Abstract Expressionism pigeon hole and was associated with Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd.
Born in Canada in 1912, she moved to Washington to study in 1931 and was influenced by Zen Buddhism scholar D.T. Suzuki. The early work includes various biomorphic forms, dominos, game boards and claws, with Earth colours of brown, yellow, grey and white being prominent. But clearly she was striving toward the square and the grid, with an evident dislike of the curve.
Three years ago, Tate Modern had a Yayoi Kusama, with thousands of spots, apparently symptomatic of her struggle with mental breakdowns and her willingly living in a psychiatric institution. Here we get the square grid as expression of Martin’s schizophrenia.
The obsession, the repetition, the very straight lines.
H’mm. I don’t know. I’m not sure the diagnosis is helpful.
But you can see that she works a very narrow range of variants on the grid and the stripe, the faded deck chair. By the time you get to The Island, a series of white squares with grey lines, the impact is very subtle and yet loud. It invokes eastern formlessness, apparently, but that again is a tad essentialist.
The later paintings of black rhomboids on grey fields are positively excessive by comparison.
I’m not sure that at the end of the day I was hugely impressed by her. Certainly I’m glad to have made her acquaintance, so to speak, and it’s always useful to get a wider sense of a period of art. But it didn’t feel, alas, like coming across a long lost friend.