Friday, February 14, 2014

Agnes Martin’s Artistic Evolution

Photo: Agnes Martin, "Beach," watercolor and ink on paper. Private collection, Denver, Co., ©Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society, New York.
The Weekly Volcano, Feb. 13,2014

I am about to say something that many lovers of modern art will consider downright sacrilegious. Here it is: I do not care for Agnes Martin’s paintings. Never have. To me they are boring, and the new show at Tacoma Art Museum has done nothing to change my mind. We have enough gray in the Pacific Northwest already.

That’s a statement of personal taste, not a reasoned critique; nevertheless, I can hear regular readers of this column readying their torches and pitch forks.

I know that Martin is a major figure in late 20th century art, I can appreciate her accomplishments, but her paintings do nothing for me.

Known for her sparse, reductive, grid paintings in subtle grays and white, Martin’s paintings are subtly and seductively expressive, combining elements of abstract expressionism, color field painting and hard-edge abstraction into a personal vision. Here’s a quote from a show announcement (author unattributed): “…her spare, reductive works in vaporous hues distinguish her as one of the key innovators in American abstraction.”

Before arriving at her signature style, Martin tried out a lot of other approaches to art from landscapes and figures to more organic abstract paintings. Her early works are little known. She, herself, did not like them and tried to destroy much of her work from her student days; yet many of her early works survive and can be seen in this exhibition. Many of these early paintings show influences from Joan Mirό and Arshile Gorky. There’s a watercolor landscape from 1946 that looks like a Marsden Hartley.

Going from these early works to her later grid paintings, beginning in the early 1960s, was a major breakthrough, which established her as her own person with a unique vision.

This show includes a lot of the seldom-seen paintings from the 1940s and ’50s, and a few of the later grid paintings. “This exhibition provides a more complete story of Agnes Martin as an artist,” said Margaret Bullock, Curator of Collections and Special Exhibitions. “These rare early works are insights into her mind at work and reveal the dramatic evolution of this celebrated artist.”

“Agnes Martin: The New York-Taos Connection,” Wednesdays–Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 5–8 p.m. through April 20, Tacoma Art Museum, adult $10, student/military/senior (65+) $8, family $25 (2 adults and up to 4 children under 18), 5 and younger free, Third Thursdays free from 5-8 pm., 253.272.4258,]

Related programs and events:

Color Theory with Elise Richman
Saturday, March 8, 2 pm
Learn color theory from Elise Richman, Associate Professor of Art at University of Puget Sound, as you create your own artwork and explore the fundamentals of color, including hue, saturation, value, shadows, highlights, and color mixing. Cost: $35 ($25 for members) Teachers can earn three clock hours.

Is Less More? with Kolya Rice
Saturday, March 22, 2 pm
Learn about the controversial minimalist art movement that arose in the 1960s and how it continues to influence artists today. Cost: $15 ($10 for members, $5 for students)

The exhibition catalogue, Agnes Martin: Before the Grid, will be available in the Museum Store for $29.95. The catalogue features surviving paintings and drawings by Martin representing her early work from the 1940s to the emergence of the grid painting format after 1960. The first critical approach to Agnes Martin focusing on her formative years as a painter, Before the Grid offers readers the opportunity to acquire a more informed response and appreciation of one of the major American artists of the 20th century.


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