Caught the Agnes Martin retrospective at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in the nick of time before it closed – absolutely not the right degree of franticness in which to take in Martin’s paintings, which, in the main, are large, cool and supremely restful.
She herself said of her work and the experience of viewing it:
“When people go to the ocean, they like to see it all day. . . . There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience, you become lighter and lighter in weight, and you wouldn’t want anything else. Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like a curtain; you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature– an experience of simple joy. . . the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”
The canvases are mostly quite large and made up of bands of colour – pale yellow and blue, a fine creamy beige and the palest of greys – divided by fine pencilled lines. You either give them a glance and walk on past, or find a seat – the Timothy Taylor Gallery thoughtfully provides a bench painted over in a Martin-like wash for the occasion – and take your time in front of them, let them sink in, as you might, say, a Rothko, though the impact here is different, the emotional range pitched on a less intense scale.
Martin, incidentally, though her work was associated with the Minimalists, called herself an Abstract Expressionist – she spent time in New York with Rothko and company, before heading south-west to Taos, whose desert landscape and shimmering heat I daresay one could find in some of her paintings.
There was one canvas in the show that struck me especially, an untitled piece from 2001, three years before she died at the grand age of 92. Measuring only 12 inches by 12, as opposed to her more usual 60 x 60 or 72 x 72, it is also surprising for the strength of its colours, narrow bands of strong, bright blue balanced against broader areas of pale blue wash, as if, from its position here close to one corner of the room it is raising its voice, giving us a shake – don’t let all that blissful tranquility send you into a trance.