When you walk in it feels as if the walls are floating. They’re washed with some sort of pale colour in wide strips. Of course it’s not the walls themselves but a set of square paintings that sort of hover in films of light.
Agnes Martin’s work is ethereal. And I’m not sure if I mean that as a compliment. At least I half do. And the other half is really deeply angry about the effect that these almost-not-there paintings are having on me. How dare she. And why am I so indignant?
I remember the same sort of effect from my first encounter with Howard Hodgkin’s actual physical paintings. I know that of course Hodgkin and Martin are about as opposite from each other as painters could ever be. On first encounter, Hodgkin’s colour is outrageous. The way it sings and shouts and wallops your eyes. My feeling was one of being thumped. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t permit it. But the work affected me at a level that I didn’t intend.
Well, the same happened with Agnes Martin. If she were alive she would surely be herself outraged by such a comparison. But that’s attributing an energy of outrage that is entirely inappropriate to what seems to be such restrained and muted work. There again, judging by the snippets available from Tate’s captions, this was a passionate and committed artist who plunged her serious mental health problems into her paintings. Who’s to say that she wouldn’t have had her say? A woman who on her death bed was able to whisper an instruction to destroy 2 paintings which were not finished while saving another is hardly not going to care what is said and thought about her work.
A friend told me that her husband had stood in the centre of the room with the white paintings and cried. That is some compliment.
The young man in the bookshop asked me what I had thought of the exhibition. He said that he had found it very sad. I could see why. You need to have lived a good long time and lost some of the fever of the blood of youth to need what Agnes Martin is giving you.
I sat and looked at a very grey painting for long enough that it came to shimmering changing vibrant life before my very eyes. I know that if I looked at it every day I would find not only new grey things to see but a new sort of vision of things.
And that’s enough to annoy anyone.