‘When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection’
‘It is a lovely thing to see how Martin’s “formlessness” is achieved by exact formal means … The result of these calculations is like a visual equivalent of silence, in which the least inflection – a pale hue or the bump of a pencilled line over the tooth of the canvas – sings’
‘There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall’
‘You will not think form, space, line, contour / Just a suggestion of nature gives weight / light and heavy / light like a feather / you get light enough and you levitate…’
‘Her abnegations bespeak not denial but tact: the tact one would display by refraining from making noise around a sleepwalker on a precipice’
Agnes Martin’s Praise (1985) is a tranquil expression of sublime beauty. On a six-by-six-foot canvas painted white – which Martin called ‘a size you can walk into’ (A. Martin, quoted in B. Eisler, ‘Profile: Life Lines,’ New Yorker, 25 January 1993, p. 81) – nine broad bands of graphite are each separated by seven thinner lines, hovering centrally away from the edges of the canvas. This is an exquisite example of Martin’s serene, reduced visual vocabulary, which she employed to evoke pure, meditative states of mind: an awareness of the transcendent reality that we experience when our minds are egoless and empty of the everyday world’s distractions. Martin conceived of this as both a cosmic force and state of consciousness. Art cannot depict perfection since perfection is immaterial; nor can art itself be perfect, as it is part of the material world. What it can express, wordless, silent, are the abstract emotional responses of beauty and happiness that we feel upon apprehending this perfection: this, for Martin, was the purpose of art and the guiding aspect of her life.
Created during Martin’s artistic maturity, the present work is an assured manifestation of her artistic creed, which constituted a vision of unique integrity in twentieth century art. The title Praise gestures towards the hymnal quality of the work’s grey rhythmic lineation; although Martin distanced her grace-like states of inspiration from belief in any Supreme Being, the influences of Zen and Taoist philosophy can be keenly felt. The motif of repetition was important in her work, linking her practice to meditation and universal order. Her asceticism is far from harsh. The lines of Praise do not embody containment or rigidity but rather, through their sequential arrangement, gesture at radiant, infinite potential and eternity beyond the framing edge: the eye experiences them not as borders or limits, but as a blissful, thrumming chorus of dissolution. As Peter Schjeldahl has written, ‘It is a lovely thing to see how Martin’s “formlessness” is achieved by exact formal means … The result of these calculations is like a visual equivalent of silence, in which the least inflection – a pale hue or the bump of a pencilled line over the tooth of the canvas – sings’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘Minimalism,’ in The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990, Berkeley 1993, pp. 224-25).
Like so many of her generation’s great abstract artists, Martin began her career with landscapes, later working in a biomorphic, Surrealist-inflected style. In the late 1950s she lived at Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, where a remarkable group of young artists gathered, including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and James Rosenquist, while Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg lived nearby. Yet even in this creative nexus, Martin remained aloof, devoted to a reclusive life that was essential to her creative process. ‘I suggest to artists,’ Martin wrote, ‘that you take every opportunity of being alone’ (A. Martin, quoted in Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, Winterthur, 1991, p. 117). It was in her studio at Coenties Slip in the late 1950s that Martin struck upon the grid, and began to create all-over compositions that espoused the same non-hierarchical approach to composition as many of the New York School painters.
While these non-hierarchical, non-representational geometries would align Martin with the formalist minimalism of the 1960s avant-garde as well as the colour field work of Newman and Rothko, her vision’s unambiguous clarity, closely varied hues and pale, spiritual affinity with nature set her apart from her contemporaries. Perhaps more compellingly than any other artist, she could poise her works at the intersection between existence and evanescence. As Lawrence Alloway describes, ‘Accepting the format of the painting (that is, the shape of the ground) as an absolute, as we must be prepared to do in interpreting painters’ ideas of space, it is possible to say that Martin’s seamless surface signifies, for all its linear precision, an image dissolving. The uninflected radiant fields are without the formal priorities of figure and field or hierarchic ranking of forms and the skinny grids are set in monochrome colours that make visible the shifting gradients of real light across the painting. The effect is of precision and elusiveness at once’ (L. Alloway, ‘Agnes Martin,’ in Agnes Martin, exh. cat. Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia 1973, p. 9).
Superbly balanced and delicately monumental, the canvas floats, untroubled, between the human and the divine. Clear as running water, the bands appear to disband, absorbing and evading, perfect and imperfect. Aside from its bodily scale, the touch of the artist is made finely present in the present work in its hand-drawn lines: the physical vehicle through which, as the image emerges, Martin’s inner vision is revealed. A vast beauty and extraordinary richness are achieved through the very simplest of means. As Martin wrote in 1966, ‘My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form … You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean’ (A. Martin, quoted in A. Wilson, ‘Linear Webs,’ Art and Artists 1:7, Oct. 1966, p. 49).