Friday, 9 October 2015

AGNES MARTIN at the TATE MODERN

The Islands, 1961
Curious, interesting exhibition, though I left feeling vaguely uncomfortable, as though I'd been asked to enjoy someone's desperation.  I understand that Martin suffered from schizophrenia (is that still allowed that word?), and it is almost too easy to see her art as a desperate way of controlling the world.  On each square canvas - and they are almost uniformly square - she imposes grids of faint washes of acrylic or pencil - sorry, graphite - that, in such numbers attests to an almost worrying obsession.  It is as though Durer, say, was only ever intrested in painting rabbits.  The curious, paradoxical effect is both of the very abstract, cold, and the extremely self-expressive.  The result is that there is little place actually for the spectator to play. Having said that, there are works, which, close up,  have an almost hypnotic effect, a little like the way one begins to see patterns in the wallpaper or plaster while soaking in the bath.  I like the painting - actually gold leaf inscribed with pencil - called 'Friendship', made up of pairs of contiguous oblongs, all a little different.  I liked as well 'The Islands' with its smudgy white daubs.  These seem somehow to reflect rather than impose.  They are more generous and inviting.  Against these there is a series of paintings called 'The Island' - paintings that are supposed to hang - to be seen - together.  You have to have very good eyesight to enjoy them as a single work, because, from amidships,  they resemble simple squares of white.  Of them Martin wrote that they are 'formless'.  I think the utter reverse; they are deeply formulaic - that is their essence.  What I miss from this exhibition is the physical - any sense of release: the paintings are humourless (there is hardly a curve to be seen), and, rather, in the end, loveless. I left, as I say, feeling pity rather than awe, but at least wondering, not for the first time, what the point of art is.

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