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Agnes Martin

Rachel Giles

Agnes Martin

Tate Modern

Until October 11, 2015

I'm in Room 7 of the Agnes Martin retrospective when an altercation occurs. An elderly man is staring at one of Martin's 72 x 72 inch canvases: thick horizontal stripes in alternate blue and pink - the blue a suggestion of desert skies, the pink, reminiscent of sand, or the light of the setting sun. A woman talking loudly on her mobile phone enters. The man looks at her in astonishment and says 'Excuse me!' Not hearing him, she carries on her conversation. The man takes more radical action. 'MADAM,' he shouts, 'WILL YOU LEAVE??' She looks up, looks shocked, and walks out. I cheer - silently. Agnes Martin's work invites, in fact demands, contemplation. It is not the sort of art that prompts on-the-spot conversation, or stories or narratives, or tries to directly represent the physical world. In fact, in these pictures, she said, there is 'neither objects nor space, nor time, nor anything.' In Martin's grids, painted in muted colours, there is a reduction of everything to line and colour. They don't have the optically dazzling quality of Bridget Riley's works, for example. They are, as Martin said, about creating a space of innocence of mind. Agnes Martin was born in 1912, in Macklin, Saskatchewan, a small town in the plains of western Canada. The daughter of Scottish Presbyterian parents, she spent most of her childhood in Vancouver. Martin's upbringing was strict, but she remembers time spent with her devout grandfather as happy, and influential on the development of her worldview. She became an artist at the age of 30 and found success in New York, represented by the art dealer Betty Parsons (who also promoted the work of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns). In 1967, Martin stopped painting, sold all her possessions and travelled across the United States and Canada in a pickup truck to experience solitude and silence. In 1968, she moved to Taos, New Mexico, to live alone in an adobe house in the desert. She didn't start painting here in earnest until 1972. Martin's early work is examined in the first part of the show. Burning Tree (1961) is an abstract sculpture made from recycled wood, metal and nails, aggressive yet strangely endearing. It has a charged presence, like a medieval object that has inexplicably wound up on a New York sidewalk. Martin would later almost exclusively paint grids, and an early example, Friendship (1963), is exquisite. Of impressive size, it references older painting techniques - glowing gold leaf painted over gesso. A detailed grid of hundreds of squares has been carefully incised into the gold, and in places white gesso is glimpsed. Does it hint at connections, at belonging? Its regularity is comforting but it still clearly shows the mark of the human hand. The rest of the show focuses on Martin's work in New Mexico up to her death in 2004. Grids feature over and over, sometimes prints, other times pencil and acrylic. Colours are pale, strictly limited. Viewed at a distance, they create a sort of diaphanous haze; close-up, you can see the irregularity of the lines and marvel at how tedious they must have been to make. They suggest a mind striving to create order, peace and balance. Martin suffered from periods of schizophrenia, which sometimes stopped her working altogether. The culmination of the grids is found in Room 9, in a group of 12 paintings entitled The Islands (1979). They are all white with graphite lines. Sustained looking reveals the fine marks and faint colours in them. Entering this room is like walking into a chapel. It creates space to be, to look; the eye can rest on colour and form without the mind trying to analyse, judge or create a narrative. Unlike Rothko's brooding, emotive works, which seem to be the outworking of an ego, Martin's canvases imply a letting go, a return to silence. Martin was friends with the painter Ad Reinhart whilst at Columbia University in the 1950s, and by extension, his close friend Thomas Merton. In her 1972 essay The Untroubled Mind she attempted to reconcile her Calvinist legacy, Taoist-Zen philosophy and Western classicism. In reducing, simplifying, limiting, eradicating all symbol and narrative, she created a wordless connection between herself and the viewer. These serene canvases, in the first major retrospective since Martin's death, should find the artist a new audience. In our culture, the opportunities to simply look and be still are few, but you can do it here. Assuming, that is, that folks can leave their phones behind.