The Agnes Martin Experience

As a recent graduate of art history,  there are few things in the world I feel certain about. General life queries aside, I’m struck by the feeling that learning about something in depth can amount to more questions than answers. For example, when asked recently something as easy as my favourite artist, threeyears ago it would have been a simple response (Gustav Klimt), yet now, several nights in the library and many 9am seminars later,  I wouldn’t know where to begin. This uncertainty is irritating but not all bad, it shows an openness to new things and a knowledge that art is not something easily categorizable into ‘favourite’, ‘least favourite’, ‘modern’, ‘historic’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. One thing that I am confident in,however, is that of all the images that have titled my lecture slides and library books, it is consistently the most aesthetically simple pieces that ‘do’ the most for me. This post is designed to delve into some of the work of American-Canadian artist Agnes Martin and understand how, by changing the way we as viewers look at art, there is much to consider in the most uncomplicated of works.

Similar to the Abstract Expressionists, as Martin also often labelled herself, her work has a distinct reduction of ‘visual language’. By this, it is to say that her work consists not so much of pictures of  things, like we may be more accustomed to seeing in traditional works of landscape and portraiture, but instead it’s comprised only of the minimal components that ‘make’ a picture. For instance,  her large canvasses are most often covered in repeated lines  and blocks of colour. A question often raised by viewers is the extent to which something of such seemingly basic composition can be considered art, and a judgement often cast is that works of Martin’s ilk (see Jackson Pollock, Eva Hesse, and Mark Rothko, the latter of whom I shall discuss in more depth later on) can be aesthetically pleasing but serve a similar purpose to decorative wallpaper. However, my belief is that these opinions are due to the fact that we as a collective audience are used to assessing works of art as something objective, as we may a storybook where we are mere recipients of information and therefore very separate from the piece itself. Yet now as we metaphorically stand before an Agnes Martin piece, in order to try to fully understand the work (take Friendship 1963 below for reference) we must change that and properly involve ourselves in the work by asking not ‘what can I see?’ but ‘what can I feel?’ and ‘what does this piece do to me?’.

Friendship, 1963.
Spanning just over 6ft on each side, Friendship is one of three images that Martin made of gold leaf and gesso.

I’m aware I may have lost some of you already. Asking an audience to actively ‘engage’ with something hanging on a wall takes a large leap outside of many people’s comfort zones, perhaps it feels a little new-age or ‘arty farty’ as my parents call it. It’s understandable, many people go to a gallery to be told stories by the paintings, where history is readily accessible in frames to look at and digest; there is a comfort in the fact this kind of art delivers a particular message. However, with work such as Martin’s, we ourselves become far more involved than we had perhaps bargained for. Instead of looking for information or a character’s narrative in the works,  we should experience the piece first hand for ourselves. As we scan our eyes across the rows from left to right and back again, our experiences are likely to vary. For instance, for me, the process is a physical one as my eyes engage in a repetitive motion row after row after row, it becomes almost hypnotic. For others, this may be more mental as they perhaps allow themselves to make their own associations between the repetition and the proximity of the blocks, the sparkling gold leaf and the title. Maybe this makes you feel something about your friendships? Maybe it doesn’t. Ultimately, the simplicity and openness of Martin’s work gives the viewer space and time to consider the piece for themselves rather than dictate a scene or story directly to each member of the audience. 

 Upon the reduction of visual language, what I personally experience is a heightened interest in the components I can recognise here. Take another example below, though Martin did not design On a Clear Day to communicate a particular message for a viewer, I am particularly drawn to think more about the decisions made regarding the background colour, the making of the grid, the scale of the canvas. As we envisage the work’s making (how did Martin draw these lines? What was the sky like when she chose the colour of this background?), it is worth noting that there is a shift in the emphasis of what the actual “art” here is. We should begin to ask, is art only ever what is on the canvas, or does it consist of something more than that? From what was once a total interest inwhat hangs on the wall, we now begin to think more seriously about how it came to be, and then, as we consider and interpret, we ourselves become integral to the creation of a meaning to the work. This merging of art and its audience is something that Martin herself craved; she said, ‘the value of art is in the observer’.

On A Clear Day, 1973.
This piece was one of thirty individual screen prints. Shortly after this series was finished Martin returned to painting.

This ability for Martin’s works to make a viewer authentically feel something rather than search for representation of feelings in characters’ faces is what makes Martin an ‘Abstract Expressionist’. Another example of this can be seen if we take, for instance, the Mark Rothko painting below:

Magenta, Black, Green on Orange, 1947.
This piece is very typical of Rothko’s later style as he experimented more in darker palettes.
Copyright – Fair Use

The 8ft 4in canvas towers above its audience, with deep hues of black and red. We, as viewers, can stand in front of these expansive pieces and know the shadow they cast, the depth of the colours,  their sublime quality. Some may feel overwhelmed, or impressed, or perhaps disinterested, but nonetheless it invokes something that we ourselves truly feel. In a similar sense to Martin, we are invited by the simplicity of the piece to engage with it directly as we would any object occupying a space that we are also in. Martin’s  geometries may transfix us, Rothko’s hues may dwarf us, either could make us turn our heads to the side in an attempt to deduce some form of image, but importantly, in some shape or form, we end up interacting with the canvas as a feature of the real world. 

Some sceptics may claim that the landscapes of John Constable and the portraits of Hans Holbein will always inform or educate a viewer more than plain blocks of paint. While this may be true, I implore you to consider that learning and experiencing are not in fact mutually exclusive but too often considered so. Once we become practised in the alternative way of looking that Martin’s work requires, where we become an important part of the chain in the total making of the art,  we may look at more traditional paintings with fresh eyes and be better equipped to experience a Constable or a Holbein piece than we ever have before. 

Hannah Kettles
Hannah is an art history graduate from the University of Nottingham (UK), she has focused predominantly on post-WWII art throughout her degree and has a keen interest in Abstract Expressionism. Hannah is one of five members of our first cohort of the 2020 Art Story Student Ambassador Programme.