Curator Lena Fritsch shares her highlights from the current exhibition at Tate Modern...
In the early 1960s, Agnes Martin’s geometric compositions evolved into what would later be seen as the artist’s signature style: the square grid. Morning 1965, which can be seen in Room 5 of the Agnes Martin retrospective exhibition, represents this important moment in her career. The painting comprises a fine hand-drawn grid on a white acrylic primed canvas, blurring the distinction between painting and drawing. Martin created the grid by combining dark graphite pencil lines with subtle red pencil lines. When examined closely, small irregularities are visible. They soften the impression of order and geometric rigidity, giving the work a hand-made quality. The title ‘Morning’ might be seen to allude to the beauty of life and nature as a source of inspiration. Martin described the work: “I was painting about happiness and bliss and they are very simple states of mind I guess. Morning is a wonderful dawn, soft and fresh.”
On a Clear Day 1973
On a Clear Day 1973 is a portfolio of thirty square screen prints that feature different variations of grey lines and grid patterns. The title was inspired by a musical film with the same title, directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1970. The production of these prints precipitated Martin’s return to painting after abandoning art making in 1967 for over five years. The artist wrote about the work in 1975: “Art work that is completely abstract – free from any expression of the environment is like music and can be responded to in the same way. These prints express innocence of mind. If you can go with them and hold your mind as empty and tranquil as they are and recognize your feelings at the same time you will realize your full response to this work.” On a Clear Day exemplifies Martin’s careful concern with repetition and small variations in geometric patterns. It typifies the calm, contemplative aesthetic of much of her work.
Happy Holiday 1999
In the early 1970s Agnes Martin began to create square paintings with pastel-coloured washes. The works are characterised by the artist’s use of (mostly horizontal) bands of luminous colour divided by hand-drawn lines. Martin used a ruler and masking tape to guide her hand in drawing the lines. Happy Holiday 1999 is a late example of these paintings. The canvas is divided into fourteen horizontal bands of equal width, alternating between a pale blue and a light peach colour. The top band and the bottom two bands are pale blue. When examined closely, fine graphite pencil lines that divide the colour fields are visible. Martin primed the canvas with an opaque coating of white acrylic gesso, which is not fully covered by the subsequent layers of colour. This gives the painting a vibrant luminosity – indeed, it reminds me of a ‘happy holiday’ in summer time.
Untitled #1 2003
The last room of the Agnes Martin retrospective exhibition presents paintings that Martin created when she was in her late 80s and early 90s. As she grew older, she reduced the size of her large paintings from 183 centimetres by 183 centimetres to 152 centimetres by 152 centimetres so she could handle them more easily. One of my favourite works in this room is Untitled #1 2003 which shows two large black triangles with small yellow tips on a lightly washed grey ground. The identical triangles are placed symmetrically along the horizontal axis of the composition. The opaque geometric shapes recall Martin’s works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly with their evocation of natural forms and landscape. At the same time, the painting appears compellingly fresh within Martin’s oeuvre, reflecting the self-reliant and independent attitude with which Martin continued to create works until the very end of her life. Untitled #1 was painted in 2003 – just one year before Martin died at the age of ninety-two in Taos, New Mexico.