This work will be included in an upcoming Catalogue raisonné to be published digitally by Artifex Press.
In Agnes Martin’s exquisite Orange Grove pale orange lines circumscribe the outer perimeters of a series four stacked cells in a seemingly limitless vertical and horizontal scaling of the pictorial surface. Coursing over the canvas, these orange lines extend the length and width of the gridded canvas, marking out units in miniature vertical columnar shapes that virtually disappear into a hushed tonality when viewed from a distance. As if to both stymie and invite vision, Martin’s “channels of nuance” (this apt phrase is the art historian Lucy Lippard’s) is at once a tour de force of disciplined mark making and an open field upon which the viewer’s imagination runs free (L. R. Lippard, “Top To Bottom, Left To Right,” in Grids, Philadelphia, 1972). As the artist asserted, “There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall” (A. Martin, quoted by Ann Wilson in “Linear Webs,” Art and Artists, London, October, 1966, p. 48). Equally, one could stand for hours in front of this expanse of glowing open field. The experience of looking links to that of hearing: the “sound of pencil lines drawn on canvas” suggests that a synesthetic experience is to be had in the presence of the magnificent Orange Grove (Ibid., p. 49). Not only do we “hear” the movement of graphite moving with considered discipline as it crosses the intertwined warp and weft of fabric, working into its grain, but we also imagine the fragrance of the orange grove itself, row upon row evoked by a semblance of hue. A further sense, tactility, the touch of the artist, is everywhere present, not only in the hand-drawn lines that follow the linearity of a marked measuring tape, but also in the erasures and corrections, which, as the image emerges, conform to Martin’s inner vision. The sense of physical identification, too, comes from the size of this picture. Martin considers her canvas, six-by-six-foot, “a size you can walk into” (A. Martin quoted in Benita Eisler, “Profile: Life Lines,” New Yorker, January 25, 1993, p. 81).
Creating a dynamic grid through displacement, the static square format is disturbed and thus activated by these groupings of horizontal cells. Martin states that she “lightens the weight of the square” by inserting rectangles within it, thereby “destroy[ing] its power” (A. Martin, quoted in L. R. Lippard, “Homage to the Square,” Art in America, Vol. 55, no. 4, July-Aug. 1967, p. 55). Given the enormity of Martin’s undertaking in the present work, it is clear she spent a vast amount of time and effort “walking into” this canvas: the individual cells create a staggering allover structure of “micro-intervals… that hover on the verge of becoming tone, but never lose their porosity” (M. Kozloff, “Art,” The Nation, November 14, 1966). In spite of the seeming regularity, one feels a vulnerability and fallibility in the execution of this latticework, characteristics that indicate the presence of the artist’s hand, a trace of her effort. Here in Orange Grove, Martin’s grid is a sensuous one—irregular and personal, a signature style in the sense of its gridded organization, but one that is as variable as it is fragile. In spite of its subtle elegance, the beige ground seems secured against dematerialization by the tensile strength of the orange-hued horizontal and vertical lines, which are locked into place at regular intervals. Infinitely extensible, they nonetheless structure the work’s open field.
There is a sense in which Martin’s finely worked surfaces suggest an affinity with the works of artists Martin knew from her early friendship with Lenore Tawney during the years 1957-1967 when she lived at Coenties Slip in Manhattan: artist Donald Judd averred at the time that “[Martin’s] field[s] are woven” (D. Judd, in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax and New York, 2005, p. 73). And so they seem to be. But Martin also takes from artists of her generation (she was born the same year as Jackson Pollock) a sense of expressive gesture and an intuitive approach to the canvas, coupled with a certain element of psychic projection and spiritual awareness. Her allover grids also speak to an affinity with the pictorial structures favored in the work of such artists as Pollock and Barnett Newman. But her immediate peers also asserted influence, particularly Ellsworth Kelly, who lived in the same building near the Staten Island Ferry dock, and who sometimes painted in her larger studio space. Kelly’s 1950s grids by way of Mondrian’s “plus and minus” paintings and his evolving Tree series, inspired Martin’s systematic exploration of gridded work. “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind” (A. Martin, Interview with Suzan Campbell, 1989, in R. Tobin, “The Islands 1961,” note 4, Agnes Martin, London, 2015, p. 78).
The appeal of the grid for Martin derives, in part, from the continuation of the above quotation: “I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied” (A. Martin, ibid., p. 105). The pairing of the non-hierarchical, non-representational, reduced geometries with a powerful symbolic visual language offered, paradoxically, a means for Martin to incorporate illusion—to refer to things metaphysical or spiritual beyond the picture frame. Her repetitions of cells suggest continuous movement beyond the framing edge. Artists in her circle, such as Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, were creating works whose seemingly blank canvas could be filled with “sublime content” (T. Bell, “Happiness is the Goal,” in Agnes Martin, London, 2015, p. 26). Yet, far from an illustration of content, Martin’s title, Orange Grove, conjures only an illusion of referent.
The works from this period feature tight grids on subtly pigmented grounds and evince a highly focused, deeply serious, and fully effortful physical and mental intensity. These characteristics abound in Orange Grove. Its minimal use of pigment, but for the orange-tinged line, merge graphite and hue to create a surface screen that shifts and floats, its orange cast shimmering from the effect of finely drawn lines. Such effulgence is stunning, even as it is paradoxically suggested by a reduction of means to simply graphite overlaid by pigment. To speak of Orange Grove as a gridded, repetitive work misses the point. As the art historian Briony Fer suggests, “Martin’s project was, on the contrary, one of myopic yet sustained accumulation of the smallest differences” (B. Fer, “Who’s Afraid of Triangles,” ibid., p. 175). Moving close to the canvas, each line of Orange Grove, each intersection of pigmented verticals and horizontals, reveals minute differentiations—a slight dip of the pencil mark here, a surge of paint there, revealing what has been called “manual candor” (L. Alloway, “Agnes Martin,” Artforum, April, 1973, online). Martin’s cells, while tight, are irregular, their contours soft and sensuous, their arrangement systematic but seemingly boundless. Orange Grove is among the masterworks of this artist, a complete statement of the expressive possibilities of her practice as well as of the fullness of her vision: “My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form” (A. Martin quoted by A. Wilson, “Linear Webs,” op. cit., p. 48). Martin might have been speaking of Orange Grove when she stated, “My painting is not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind” (A. Martin, “Unpublished Notes,” Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in L. Alloway, “Agnes Martin,” ibid.).