This work will be included in an upcoming Catalogue raisonné to be published digitally by Artifex Press.
The sole kinetic work in Agnes Martin’s entire oeuvre, The Wave consists of a small wooden box covered by a blue-pigmented Plexiglas sheet. At first glance it seems a relatively innocuous creation until, upon lifting the box, it magically springs to life as the small spherical objects inside begin to roll over the corrugated wooden base, releasing a soft whooshing sound which gives voice to the eponymous title. At once, the tactile and aural are activated, transforming what seemed a mute aesthetic object into “an embodied model of spectatorship,” one that activates space and gives line, color, and texture palpability (C. B. Rosenberger, “A Sophisticated Economy of Means,” in Agnes Martin, New York and New Haven, 2011, p. 110). Suddenly we are in another world, a private, quiet world, the world of Agnes Martin: “You will not think form, space, line, contour/Just a suggestion of nature gives weight/light and heavy/light like a feather/you get light enough and you levitate…” (A. Martin, “The Untroubled Mind,” in Agnes Martin, eds. F. Morris and T. Bell, London, 2015, p. 265). One does levitate in the presence of such a seemingly ethereal object. Who could guess that this curiously precious “box,” so frankly present, yet so seemingly disingenuous, would be an interactive conundrum, a construction that included, of all things, blue plastic beads “stolen” from a local hardware store (F. Morris, “Agnes Martin: Innocence and Experience,” p. 58, note 15, reported to the author by Susan Sharp, July 27, 2014, in ibid.). Yet the shrewdness of this hermetic jewel and the sheer joy so visible in its making are conveyed by the very colors, lines, shapes, movements, and sounds enclosed in this single, delightful spatial construct.
The Wave was included in a 1963 exhibition called “Toys by Artists” at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Dissatisfied with much of what was on view, in his New York Times review the critic John Canaday singled out Martin’s work for particular praise compared to the raucous nature of the other work on view. “Miss Martin’s ‘The Wave’ is exactly the opposite,” he wrote, “small and quiet” (J. Canaday, “Toys By Artists are Good Art and Good Toys,” New York Times, December 22, 1963). Canaday directs his closing remarks to Martin’s entry—a rhetorical emphasis that offers a delightful, clearly appreciative, detailed formal analysis: “Enclosed in the shallow box under a glass lid, a hundred or so small gray pellets, when the box is tilted, flow across a piece of wood scored in parallel lines so that they catch, jump, run, quiver and settle into place in random patterns. These patterns as well as the rustling sound the pellets make, do suggest a wave breaking and receding on a beach. But the hypnotic effect…is in its general suggestion of restlessness that finally comes to peace, but must be set into new restlessness” (Ibid.).
This last—the notion of “restlessness”—describes, in effect, not only the object, but also the peripatetic life of the artist. Martin came to Columbia Teachers’ College from Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1941, only to enroll in the Art Department of the University of New Mexico by 1946. Alternating between New York and New Mexico, for the next several years, she finally settled in New York by 1957, having accepted Betty Parsons’ stipulation that she would give Martin a show only if she moved back to New York. By 1961, after exposure to artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, who lived in the same building with Martin, and others who formed a small artists’ community in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan, Martin turned from schematic figuration to geometric abstraction. Kelly
and Martin shared a strong feeling for Mondrian and formally looked to modular, or gridded, pictorial compositions in terms of their expressive possibilities.
Yet, rather than a spatially flat, severe geometric rendering, Martin’s grids breathe, her lines read like traces of an authorial touch, exuding air and light, pulling lines inward, using the gravitational flux of color and shape to express both tactile and optical effects. Martin conjured the sense of a counterweight to gravity in describing her viewing experience of her own work. “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, you wouldn’t want to do anything else. ...My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form” (A. Wilson, “Linear Webs,” Art and Artists 1, no. 7, Oct. 1966, p. 49). Martin called this “going into a field of vision,” and indeed, that is the experience one has in contemplating one of Martin’s ethereal natural landscapes (Ibid., p. 49). That they are pure geometries makes them, perhaps, all the more impenetrable. But that is the point—not to expend effort, not to search for something, but simply to “go into” their expanse. During the early 1960s, Martin had created three-dimensional effects in her ostensibly “flat” painting from scavenged materials, such as nails that she fixed onto boards, boat spikes, and wood pegs. As in The Wave, these sculptures demonstrate the spatial aspect of Martin’s aesthetic, the sense that for her, “lines beg[in] as points in space” (Wilson, op. cit., 47).
Martin’s The Wave is both an object to be viewed as sculpture and an object with which to engage. How imaginative to invite a child—or adult—to interact with her serialized pictorial elements, to make lines at regular intervals three-dimensional, to enliven their surface with grooves over which small beads moved kinetically under atmospherically-tinted blue Plexiglas. And yet, while lines repeat, as the art historian Lucy Lippard suggests, they are actually iterations of newly formed “singularities”: each line exists as a unique mark, “…legendary examples of an un-repetitive use of a repetitive medium” (L. Lippard, “Top to Bottom, Left to Right,” in Grids Grids Grids, Philadelphia, 1972, pp. 5-14). The resultant effect is almost synesthetic: color and sound merge as the beads wash over the grid, now incised grooves, creating an effect of pebbles gently washed by waves or the sound of falling water.