‘My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent... and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent’ (A. Martin, ‘The Still and Silent in Art,’ quoted in N. Rifkin, ‘Agnes Martin – The Music of the Spheres,’ Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 2002, p. 25).
‘For more than five decades, Martin has created paintings that are evocations of light, each an individual issuance of ethereal rhythms. Simultaneously powerful and gentle, they are spartan works, beautiful without the slightest adornment. The paintings that Martin has offered us with unstinting consistency are pictures of anything. They are cadences of light, form, and color’ (N. Rifkin, ‘Agnes Martin – The Music of the Spheres,’ Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 2002, p. 28).
A radiant large scale work painted during the last decade of the artist’s life, Loving Love emerges as the pinnacle of Agnes Martin’s aesthetic journey. Standing over one and a half metres high, the delicate bands echo the horizon at daybreak, completely absorbing the viewer in its soft, ethereal glow. Demarcated by the artist’s palpable pencil lines, the mottled white yields to the luminosity of airy blue and pink undertones, hinting at the idea of colour without ever being explicit. Coalescing in veil-like ethereality, the sequence of enticing tonalities establishes a cohesive and open aura of light, space, and calm. Painted in 2000, the same year as the artist’s solo exhibition at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Loving Love belongs to Martin’s final cycle of works executed in Taos, New Mexico.
Both meditative and classical, Martin’s late Taos works are among the artist’s most powerful invocations of the sublime, as well as persuasive expression of pure joy. Standing in contrast to the her thirty year long tradition of leaving her works untitled, the late Taos are unique in that for the first time Martin projects her personal emotions into expressive, exuberant titles. The Taos paintings are held in such prominent collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate, London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Testament to the power of these late works, Loving Love was included in the prestigious The Menil Foundation solo exhibition, Agnes Martin: The 90s and Beyond, February-May 2002, which focused exclusively on these ‘late works of a giant of an artist’ (N. Rifkin, Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 2002, p. 15). Reminiscent of the ethereal desert light, Martin’s softly coloured, almost opaque sandy bands reflect the vast expanse of the New Mexican terrain. In this way, Loving Love is clearly influenced by the brilliance of the desert, although its evocation is not descriptive but rather evocative of the open skies, desert dunes and the particular quality of light of Martin’s adopted home. Drawing her influence from the tranquillity of the horizon, where sand and sky effortlessly collide, Martin’s use of colour was an inquiry into the physical properties of the spectrum of light. Appearing diagrammatic up close, these bands also seem to occupy literal fields of space: palpitating at a distance, the alternating bands appear to advancing and receding, coming in and out of focus. Maintaining that the infinite vastness of the horizon sparks an awareness of perfection in the human mind that, although unseen and immaterial, is ultimately the essential and pervasive character of reality, she sought to recreate this same contemplative stillness of Nature in her canvases.
The meditative stillness of Loving Love mirrors Martin’s contemplative process, akin to a form of prayer. Beginning by hand drawing graphite lines on gessoed surfaces using strings stretched tautly across the canvas, she enacted each line as a balancing act, requiring intense concentration and halting progress, evident in the visible tremors of the obviously hand-made final product. Varying the spacing, sometimes using equidistant separations and sometimes conjuring complicated and intricate patterns, Martin varied her compositions in slight but noticeable shifts that are evident in the arrangement of Loving Love. Next she added colour, mixing and modulating her own shades of acrylic paint, skilfully diluting and mixing them with chalky white gesso to create luminous, light infused colour. As a result, the hues appear to defy their material basis. As evident in Loving Love, the artist’s use of colour becomes the defining factor of the composition, not merely an expressive device used to represent the abstraction within.
As with the New York School artists, with whom she had become acquainted when living in New York during the late 1950s and 60s, Martin employed abstraction as her tool of revelation. Taking inspiration from the sublime abstractions of Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, who each used art as a vehicle for certain concrete but ineffable feelings, Martin came to understand how geometric clarity and linearity could be used in the service of subjective emotion and spiritual resonance. Yet, delving further, Martin became concerned with creating transcendent, sublime compositions through her own intimate painterly details. ‘The Greeks made a great discovery,’ she once observed, ‘they discovered that in Nature there are no perfect circles or straight lines or equal spaces. Yet, they discovered that their interest and inclination was in the perfection of circles and lines, and that in their minds they could see them and that they were then able to make them. They realized that the mind knows what the eye has not seen and that what the mind knows is perfection’ (A. Martin, quoted in ‘What we do not see if we do not see,’ Agnes Martin: Writings, D. Schwarz (ed.), Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, 1991 p. 117). Sharing a deep affinity and mutual respect with Barnett Newman, both artists worked towards a geometrically informed aesthetic that conveyed her metaphysical ambitions. Indeed, rather than stating the purely material aspects of painting, she transformed the objective clarity of the grid into portals of subjective emotion and spiritual resonance. It was this perfection that the pared down lines of Martin’s essentially humble works, both pointed to and sought to invoke. Gently expanding from the central band, Martin’s compositions are symmetrically balanced, exposing her predisposition for geometrical order. Yet, it is these subtle irregularities within the context of this geometrical uniformity that divulges the humanity of Martin’s own touch. In this final cycle, she combines this natural purity with her own embrace of sheer goodness, pervasive wellbeing, and the joyous sense of the sublime. Loving Love embodies the sense of stillness and calm that is the central pillar in Martin’s work and demonstrates how her paintings are meant not merely to be looked at, but also experienced.