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Survey of Agnes Martin's powerful yet meditative work draws a straight, vibrant line to Zen

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic

Want to clear your mind? Get a pickup truck, then spend a couple years driving across and around the continent — alone.

That's the first lesson of the lovely retrospective of abstract paintings by Agnes Martin (1912-2004) newly opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show is divided in two, early work and late work, and the separation between them was launched by her decision to make an extended cross-country sojourn. In stripped-down canvases, Martin created an entirely distinct, largely unprecedented artistic vocabulary for spiritual consciousness.

Part 1 shows her surprising mode of pure abstract painting coming into focus. Flat geometric bars or grids, often drawn in pencil on 6-foot square canvases, are washed in thin oil paint.

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For the Record

An earlier version of this review said the geometric bars or grids were often drawn on 5-foot square grids.

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Part 2 shows the spare motif being boundlessly elaborated and steadily refined, now mostly in acrylic. It's as if a clear breeze blows through. Once you've nestled into her seemingly simple, initially inscrutable, finally profound vision of art, it's like enveloping your mind's eye in a soft, methodical, determined but exalted radiance.

In 1967, after a decade living and working in New York, Martin learned that her studio at Coenties Slip, a two-block stretch of artists' lofts near South Ferry at the tip of Lower Manhattan, was slated for demolition. She left behind her brushes and unused canvas with instructions to give them to some art students, climbed into her newly acquired camper truck and hit the road. She was 55.

Six years later, having settled in rural New Mexico, where she lived the rest of her life, the Saskatchewan-born artist began to work again. In the exhibition, her return to art-making is marked by "On a Clear Day," a suite of 30 screen-prints. They are installed as a bridge between the show's two halves.

"On a Clear Day" is radical in its simplicity. And in the visual result, which is almost inexplicably compelling.

Each print in the suite is a foot square, the image composed of thin, ruled lines drawn in gray on cream-colored Japanese rag paper. Overall, the contour of various combinations of parallel lines or grids conforms to the shape of the paper — say, a stack of 12, 15 or 20 evenly spaced horizontal lines; closed or open-ended checkerboards in patterns of different sizes; and so on.

All these internal shapes are rectangles or stripes, whether vertical or horizontal. Intervals between and within them matter. Positive forms are equalized by negative space. They join to form a perfectly balanced square, every individual mark locked into harmonious place with every other mark, as well as with the print as a material whole.

This compositional structure utterly neutralizes art as an expression of individual personality. So does the effectively colorless palette.

Nonetheless, the work is not the least bit impersonal. The prints aren't crisply objective or dispassionate in a way that we associate with 1960s Minimal art, such as Donald Judd's rigorously machined metal boxes or Dan Flavin's arrangements of fluorescent lights, seemingly straight from the factory.

"On a Clear Day" instead unfolds as a progressively more vibrant experience of unified awakening. Visually, things begin to add up as you move through the suite. Martin's interest in Buddhist and Tao philosophies comes through loud and strong, even though the delicacy of the handmade prints is inescapable. Distractions fall away, equilibrium arrives.

Has Zen ever looked quite like this before?

The show's first half chronicles how Martin dispensed with traditional representations of spiritual consciousness embedded in the natural world. Bits of Willem de Kooning and Arthur Dove turn up as biomorphic Cubist shapes dispersed across off-white fields. The monochrome geometry of Ad Reinhardt's paintings joins a Barnett Newman "zip" — a vertical stripe painted as simultaneously a solid and a void, a line of opaque pigment and a sliver of translucent light.

Elements of Native American patterns, witnessed during sojourns to the Southwest, turn up. So do the optically fuzzed, atmospheric rectangles in Mark Rothko's paintings, their color here tamped down.

Considerable groping around is in evidence. Martin's early paintings are rarely seen — she destroyed many of them when her work matured — but the pictures made in the half a dozen or so years after 1954 chart her varied interests in other artists' work. She understood that art comes from art, not from nature or an expressive self.

By 1962, the grid and stripe formats are pretty much in place. So is a commitment to painting as a carefully crafted physical object — a thing, not a metaphoric mirror or window.

"Little Sister," not quite square, is emblematic. A small canvas painted silvery gray is overlaid with a pencil grid of vertical rectangles. The pencil lines were dragged from edge to edge, picking up the thinly painted tooth of the canvas support. Horizontal double-rows of tiny brass nails were tap-tap-tapped into place, the rounded nail-heads gleaming.

Martin's painting is like a little piece of hand-crafted furniture without discernible function — except to be looked at and pondered, like some strange amulet.

Over the next five years Martin expanded what would become her standard motif. She began to earn critical, collegial and commercial success — no mean feat for any artist, never mind a woman of her era. It made her sudden disappearance from New York, hiatus from art-making and permanent relocation to the Southwest that much more dramatic.

The exhibition's second half settles into elaboration, like a long exhale. Pastel pink, blue and yellow emerge. Other works are all in shades of gray. Paint is virtually always thin — and sometimes seemingly stained, other times repetitively brushed in staccato marks, elsewhere laid on in liquid washes. Oil-based color gives way to water-based acrylics.

The traveling show, organized by London's Tate Modern, has been sensitively installed at LACMA by Director Michael Govan. In a surprising but successful decision, no artificial lighting is employed during daylight hours, except in controlled rooms where Martin's ethereal works on paper or shown.

Skylights typically don't do much for contemporary paintings — or, at the least, not nearly as much as they do for Old Master and early Modern works because those were painted without benefit of incandescent lamps. But Martin's are an exception.

Natural light is alive. In the galleries, that enhances these particular works' corporeal sense of a painting as metaphoric skin and bones — a skin of painted washes of canvas anchored by a skeletal grid and stretcher bars.

A few important works have unfortunately dropped out of the tour. Especially missed is "The Tree" (1963), its fog of repeated horizontal rows of short, vertical pencil marks recalling the development of Mondrian's grids as abstracted from the landscape; and, the secular altarpiece of incised gold-leaf titled "Friendship" (1964). Both are in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

But others have been added. With 59 paintings, 35 works on paper (in addition to the "On a Clear Day" suite of prints) plus a few eccentric objects, the development of Martin's marvelous, meditative body work is roughly complete.

Nancy Princenthal's recent award-winning Martin biography chronicles how she was hospitalized several times for paranoid schizophrenia and required medication, while her homosexuality was manifest during a time when hostility and violence were not uncommon. But Princenthal correctly warns against the temptation to make strict biographical interpretations of the work, which Martin also resisted.

We love a good story of a crazy, disaffected artist, alienated from society and clinging to art as a desperate life raft. In Martin's unruffled but resolute retrospective, that's a distraction that also falls away.

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'Agnes Martin'

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Through Sept. 11. Closed Wednesdays.

Info: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org

christopher.knight@latimes.com

KnightLAT@twitter.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on May 02, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "At the intersection of Zen - ART REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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