Abstract Affect (Agnes Martin)


Agnes Martin’s work is an important chapter in “the spiritual in art” in modern western visual art. The fabulous retrospective on her is now on view at the Guggenheim. The first works were biomorphic, but she’s better know for her mature body of paintings in which every thing is washed out. There are two levels of structure in her work: [1] the subtle visual variations and vibrations created by lines and strips and grids and [2] the dissonance between the perfectly abstract image and titles that evoke nature (white flowers, islands), seasons (summer), and moods (gratitude). The paintings do not draw you into the gloam. With light reflecting back at you, bouncing of the white canvas, the emotions are abstract, at once contemplative and ecstatic. Combining structure and anti-structure, the paintings are separated by lines that often border on the invisible. I’m including here the review of the retrospective by Holland Cotter, here in the NYT, from which I grabbed the photo at the top of the post. These are demanding paintings. You are supposed to sit and look. This takes time. For me, the takeaway is that you can do “nothing” with painting.

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About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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