Thursday, January 5, 2017

Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim

A couple of days ago, I went with a friend to see the Agnes Martin show at the Guggenheim in New York, which originated at the Tate Modern in London. I've been to both of these museums often enough to guess that the latter was probably a better place for Martin's gentle squares, grids, stripes and luminous colors, which demand quiet contemplation, solitude if possible and natural light (not the CFL/fluorescence that washes out everyone and everything). There are places that do justice to Martin's work; the Guggenheim is not one of them. Even Peggy Guggenheim, the founder Solomon's niece, referred to the building as "...my uncle's garage." Although Peggy didn't collect Agnes Martin, Martin's works would have benefited enormously by being shown at Peggy's Venice Museum - a lovelier setting would be hard to find (more water, more light), except perhaps for one venue I describe below.

I've long felt that the Guggenheim in New York is a good place to visit for the "building itself" experience. Frank Lloyd Wright - its architect - would have agreed: he maintained that the spiraling bricks and mortar were/should be the highlight and not the art. It is hard for the art to hold its own in this structure; perhaps the best way is to embrace its oddity, i.e. don't fight with it and don't affix square-framed art to the sloping walls. I agree with a friend who commented that it always appeared as though the art was "clinging to the walls." I have seen great shows there, though: the James Turrell show was fantastic, other-worldly; filling the entire space with ever-changing and magical light. Another good exhibition was the Cai Guo-Qiang show, featuring hanging cars and stuffed snarling tigers. In both cases, the building co-existed comfortably with the art.

In January 2016, I eagerly showed up at the doors of the new Whitney, but it was closed that day (a Tuesday, so now I know). From what I have seen online and been told by friends who have visited, it is quite magnificent, lots of natural light, views of the Hudson River. I think that Agnes Martin - a former resident of the artists' colony on Coenties Slip on the East River - might have preferred this place for this retrospective of her work.

I loved the obsessive gentleness of all of the pieces in the Agnes Martin show, but one painting stood out for me: Gratitude, both the beautiful composition of it and the intention behind it. Nancy Princenthal's excellent biography of Agnes Martin, Mary Lance's documentary, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, and Agnes and Me, the memoir of one of Martin's confidants, all shed light on the enigmatic artist. To really see her, though, you need to get close to the works, breathe them in, and then step back to fully appreciate her greater vision.

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