Unreal Nature

January 9, 2018

Sublimely Unemphatic

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… An artist like Martin can fill the house with a whisper.

This is from the essay ‘Agnes Martin‘ (1973) found in Topics in American Art Since 1945 by Lawrence Alloway (1975):

Martin wrote that: “There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall.” One of her paintings is called Falling Blue, but it is not necessary to assume that the words describe this painting or, conversely, that the painting illustrates these words. However, the experience Martin refers to includes factors of repetition and continuity (the changing water in a stable course) and of motion contracted into timelessness.

[line break added] The synonymic forms that she uses, then, may be analogous to geological strata, a handful of sand, the sun reflected on water, or the planting of a grove. “Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it,” to quote Martin again, which is something that can be said about the quivering space of her own paintings.

There is some reason not to make too much of Martin’s nature metaphors, despite her imagery’s smoldering evocative power. To quote the artist: “my paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything — no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.” She concludes the argument aphoristically: “You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean.”

[line break added] Allowing for the difference between a compact zone, like a painting, and boundless field, the continuous space of the world, oceans do have form. And endlessness can be connoted by a contained work of Martin one of two ways, either by an all-over field or by a grid with a sufficient number of repetitions. A collection of similar bits, beyond easy counting, implies infinity; that is why the internal area of a Martin painting can seem so highly expansive.

Martin, in a manuscript note, writes: “Everyone recognizes the nature pattern of unequal and contesting parts. Classicism forsakes the nature pattern.” In another place she writes a poem:

The underside of the leaf
Cool in shadow
Sublimely unemphatic
Smiling of innocence

The frailest stems
Quivering in light
Bend and break
In silence

She comments on it: “This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”

… American postwar art is distinguished by its ostentatious physical presence. The elaboration of gesture by the Abstract Expressionists, the lateral expansion of color by the field painters, the stepping up of hue by the hard-edge painters, and the stress on the objectness of sculpture in Minimal Art are all cases of artists accepting the mutually supportive goals of concreteness and handsomeness.

[line break added] Comparatively few American artists withhold their art from this competitive mode but, as it happens, grids are conspicuous in the case of three artists who do. Martin’s square canvases are reserved in appearance and unassuming in their means; LeWitt’s drawings, on walls or paper, are diagrammatic in form and undogmatic in their permutations; and Carl Andre’s floor sculptures (except for the uncharacteristically showy 37 Pieces of Work on the floor at the Guggenheim) occupy space firmly but without any drama of protuberance and void.

[line break added] In all three artists, the pleasure of synonymity and the discipline of restraint are essential to achieving a reserved art on a large scale. It should not be thought that this is a complaint about objects as such, only about their escalation. This is not an argument for “dematerialization,” only for restraint. An artist like Martin can fill the house with a whisper.

My most recent previous post from Alloway’s book is here.




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