Agnes Martin at Tate Modern to 11 October 2015

In looking for beauty and order Agnes Martin found it in a limited range of grids, colour and tonal range. Nature is at the heart of her work but also, it seems, is a need to order its chaos, to hone it within her grids to something without threat where we respond to its beauty and not its precariousness. However this is not always the case and darker elements are also on the prowl.

In Room 4 ‘Friendship’ (gold leaf incised on linen 1963) is an intense and beguiling enchantress, but the less showy ‘A Grey Stone’ (oil paint on canvas 1963) in the same small space dominates and flickers quietly in close tone greys.agnes-martin-a-greystone The vertical and horizontal pencil marks, uneven in weight, make the grid, their unevenness creates subtle shifts of energy and light. Within each rectangle tiny blocks of muted blue grey are dabbed leaving a halo of paler under-painting around them producing a dappled hovering energy close to the surface. Stand back and darker vertical strips over the surface become apparent and so the eye moves over the ordered surface, finding a path through its differences. It has the shifting energy of nature, and as if contemplating the lack of definition in the precise and concentrated observation of a grey stone, its essence is described within a grid of tiny squares.

Agnes Martin explored an infinite variety of order. In a room of screenprints (1972) thirty grids float freely or are less comfortably bound to the edge of the paper. In their precision and even weight they lose the trembling energy of the less predictable hand drawn graphite lines of her paintings and have less of a link to nature and more to seeking containment, a rigid structure and order. And so, not all in Agnes Martin’s world was about beauty.

‘The Islands’ (acrylic/graphite 1979) are twelve claustrophobic white paintings. The colour is painted out, suffocated behind a shroud of glossy white. It is a room of suppression – no light, all constraint and hindrance.

‘Homage to Life’ (acrylic/graphite 2003)agnes-martin-homage-to-life is discordant in its lack of symmetry, it seems to describe a homage to life’s absence of order and poetry and where the image implies equilibrium and uniformity it delivers the opposite.

On the other hand amongst many other celebratory paintings is ‘Morning’ (acrylic/graphite1965). Painted grey overall with a delicate pink pastel line drawn parallel and close to a graphite grid, close up it might appear to be about nothing. The faint rosiness of the pastel illuminates the grey with a flush of colour and at a distance the canvas is suffused with an optimistic warmth. The painting is understated and alive with shimmering energy and describes exactly that time in the day when the world comes alive with light.

The simplicity of this work is deceptive. It requires a real clarity of purpose and vision to achieve such eloquence.

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