A r t  of  I n v i s i b i l i t y
The Clear, Moving Work of Agnes Martin

By Jeffrey Lee
[from an article originally published in weeklyWIRE, August 3rd, 1998]

Words about visual art are always beside the point, and it's especially hard to say anything about art that is as drastically reduced as Agnes Martin's. How is it that Martin, with her evenly spaced horizontal and vertical lines and her hushed palette, has produced a body of work that is so moving? ...

The Taos artist's grids, some of them traced in lines of graphite so faint they seem to be emerging from or disappearing into a mist, prompted Nicolas Calas to call Martin's an "art of invisibility." It's tempting to read a "beyond" into them; the surface holds so few clues, so little to go on, really. Martin's own statements about what she does tend to verge on the mystical; but whatever they do for the soul, it would be a mistake to let their mystical suggestiveness overshadow what they are, first and foremost: gorgeous, uncompromising challenges to the eye.

You could mistake Martin, who was honored with a Whitney retrospective in 1992 and a Golden Lion at last year's Venice Biennale, for a Minimalist. But the hard, machine-edged lines of Minimalism are worlds apart from her precisely repeated, subtly varied lines, each of which shows the human presence of her hand. The occasional, but deliberate, breaks and wobbles--only one or two in each drawing, usually tiny and easy to miss--are crucial to an Agnes Martin composition. When she writes about her work, the artist uses words like "joy" and "perfection," but the geometric purity it aspires to is a Platonic ideal, imperfectly translated to canvas or paper. With its purposeful "flaws," the quiet, joyful space between real and ideal is exactly what Martin's work celebrates.

More than anything, Agnes Martin's works on paper narrow and focus the eye's attention. You have to stand close to them. You have to "read" every line. They demand intimacy and a kind of commitment. But what they give back, in their simplicity and richness, is indescribably moving.

- Jeffrey Lee
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