The first question with Agnes Martin is, are you a believer, or a dissenter?
Like Cy Twombly, another Menil favorite on whom opinions are sharply split, there are those who believe that Martin's delicate, sunshiny stripes resonate with mystical potency, and there are those who don't care, and resent the clouds of new-agey pretension which obscure even the simplest discussion of the work.
I'm both. From ten feet away, it's Martha Stewart minimalism: anti-masculine, decorative, tasteful. Washy bars in cornflower, salmon, and buttercup divide her white squares, making pretty sunrises and seascapes, or fabric swatches from beach umbrellas. At three feet, they have a humble frankness: matter-of-fact pencil lines overlap where the yardstick ended, colored washes are applied with workmanlike brushstrokes. A few stray hairs, specks and knobbly canvas imperfections are natural events that are neither hidden nor glorified. In true Zen style, transcendence must come through mundane means.
Next to the Rothko chapel and the Twombly mausoleum, Martin's works seem anti-heroic. Moderate in scale, they're big enough for atmosphere but free of bombast. The chapel's spiritual void is dark and heavy, Martin's light and airy. Where Twombly's paintings evoke the dramatic vulnerability of tragedy and loss, Martin shows us the peaceful strength of endurance and resolution. It's tempting to say one's masculine and one's feminine; one's all about death and the other about life, but that's oversimplifying it.
But those jaw-sagging, treacly titles! I Love Life, Lovely Life, Beautiful Life, Love and Goodness, and the topper: I Love the Whole World. Only the battiest of old desert ladies, or the most viciously cynical grad student, or the most viciously cynical batty old desert lady could have come up with those. Impressive. That those titles are stuck to some of the most mechanical work in the show, paintings with bands of monochrome, parallel stripes, is doubly tricky.
Despite its hardcore abstraction, Martin's is an art of place: she gave up the harsh, grubby pencil grids of New York for the pastel horizontality of the west. Most of the named collections from which the show was borrowed are in the Southwest, and it's easy to imagine owning two: one for the Santa Monica beach house, another for Aspen.
Despite a superficial sameness, Martin wrings a surprising range of feelings and associations from a very limited vocabulary. Cool or warm, flat or spatial, opaque or transparent, floating or resting, her bars are sometimes mechanical, as in Love and Goodness, sometimes softly atmospheric as in Untitled #11. It's an art of subtleties: how many bars, how wide, in what order? Martin's paintings do what minimalism does best: making imperceptible subtleties deliciously obvious. Though art is not a religion, nor is good taste a moral virtue, Martin's monastic dedication to her inscrutable stripes comes close.
Bill Davenport is an artist and writer from Houston.