I have experienced the transformative, the meditative, the evocative nature of abstraction many times (I recall being moved standing in front of one of Barnett Newman’s Zip paintings the first time I went to MoMA at age 16…the scale of the painting and the force of the zip had not been adequately captured in reproduction.) so of course this is not a new concept. But it’s one that I am pondering and considering as I think about the work I make and the subject matter I am dealing with.
Some recent exhibitions that further spurred me on this path are the Carmen Herrera show at the Whitney, and the Agnes Martin show at the Guggenheim. I saw both within a few days of each other, and they resonated in powerful, yet very different ways.
I had an immediate gulp of recognition with Carmen Herrera’s paintings. Her forms: so stark, so simplified, so much a response to architectural space. It was a language I immediately understood, because it’s one that I have recently been grappling with, as well. There was so much tension in her work. They were so muscular, yet there was simultaneously a delicacy and refinement that loaded the work with tension, emotion, and feeling. Her series Blanco y Verde (1959–1971) “illustrate the highly innovative way in which Herrera conceptualized her paintings as objects, using the physical structure of the canvas as a compositional tool and integrating the surrounding environment.” There was not only tension and emotion within the frame of the canvas, but also with how the painting (as object) engaged the space of the gallery.
The work of Agnes Martin, while obviously also engaged with abstraction and minimalism, created an entirely different wave of feelings. What I appreciate about her is that she was so steadfastly unapologetic about her commitment to instilling her work with human emotion. She had no choice to distance herself from the Minimalists because her art was so representational in that way (representing subjective states and universal emotions). Despite attaching herself to the grid formally for so many years, what resonates strongly with me is the evidence of the hand in the work. There are no hard edges. The colors create subtle shifts and the marks are refined, yet not rigid. There is so much emotion in each piece, and the serial work she made starting in the 70s is powerful because of the sequential experience. “By creating studied differences between the works, Martin established a relationship between the presence of one and the memory of another, highlighting her interest in the mind’s role in visual experience and the perception of beauty.” (Guggenheim)
This statement of the “relationship between the presence of one and the memory of another,” is something I will be thinking about for a while. There will be repetition, there will be series, so the role of memory in the leap between one and the next is super important. And what of the relationship between a historical action and its re-creation?
And on another related note, Dore Ashton initiated this reading of Martin’s work: “Martin’s attempts at painting the Taos Mountains precipitated her move to abstraction: ‘in her effort to express their almost unimaginable power, she discovered the need for symbolic–or abstract–means. In this, Martin argued not for a literal transcription of place, but a conversion of it into an experience.” (p. 42, Agnes Martin: Night Sea by Suzanne Hudson)