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. 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) 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.
If you feel the need to absent yourself temporarily from the material world, visit the Sackler galleries this week to feast on Joseph Cornell’s amazing multi-layered universe.
In the theatrical, fairy tale ‘Palace’ a forest of twigs stands impenetrable behind a white castle, its mirror-windows reflecting your image back at you. It sits in a box behind glass and you are at once part of it and excluded from its secrets, but the journey is yours and the promise of a dark fairy tale mystery comes alive in this inanimate universe where you slip in seamlessly to roam through remembered childhood imagery, stories and adventure, stepping out of the world you can see into the one you cannot – the imagination.
Each box, and there are many, is its own world, dream-like, indecipherable, evocative and a perfectly balanced composition. Clay pipes and celestial charts, a Medici princess in a case lined with street maps and childhood building blocks papered with sundial, ladder, wild cat, with below an intriguing drawer holding feather, fan and sealed package containing what?
In Untitled (Soap Bubble Set Variant) 1952-54 a pipe bowl face gazes impassively up at the heavens it floats through, back lit by white driftwood. Splashes of white paint on the glass suggest planets whisking through eternity, and the heavenly blue beyond is given depth and a suggestion of plummeting space by vertical white lines in a starry, timeless and strangely passive world. What on earth does it mean, I don’t know. Does it capture the imagination and press it on to other fertile regions – yes.
This is not just about boxes. Cornell’s film GNIR REDNAW is made from unused footage from a commissioned piece. In it he assembles an upside down experience of what we know – a journey that could be familiar becomes vertiginous as the brain reassembles what is scrambled and inverted back to the known.
This is an exhibition of expeditions, a wandering through childhood imagination and adult awareness, mixing it up, making it new and unexpected. It’s the unique body of work of an artist unselfconsciously absorbed in an intricate and complex universe where the child and adult are encompassed and richly expressed together and where the journey in imagination is as real and potent as any other.
Early in this exhibition there is a Henry Moore marble ?Snake? that speaks entirely of limbless Garden of Eden serpent-ness sitting in a cabinet with a spare and elegant John Skeaping ?Fish? and a Barbara Hepworth lumpy green onyx ?Toad? (1928) which casts no light on her future as a successful sculptress. The lithesome snake, folded and knotted, sits in balanced, smug perfection and it is as much as I can do not to smash the glass and leg it out of the Tate with this beauty. However, Hepworth moves on from toads and delivers. (more…)
On the ground floor gallery ‘Warp and Woof’, a sparkling granite boulder, has become something more than an inert mass. It tilts its weight to one side, its body repeating an intricately cut geometrical pattern which adjusts in scale to fit the form and gives the impression of something living. The mystery is underway. (more…)