Winter Road Trip, part 2

by Titus OBrien January 18, 2009
A week in Dallas was just enough to leave with the bloom still on the rose of my affection. We headed in one long day’s drive to Abiquiu, New Mexico. We spent a few days in a stone house down the road from Richard Tuttle, whose house I heard cost a fortune, and now shines glittering silver and post-mod cool in the sun beneath surrounding mesas. I also was told it acts like an oven in the summer and a deep freeze in winter. These claims are unsubstantiated however, as the accuser is not 100% sure if the exact house in question is actually Tuttle’s. If we’d had an extra day, I might have gone knocking to find out. My students last semester joked by the end that “Tuttle-esque” had become my favorite adjective. He seems really helpful, for a number of reasons, for introducing a lot of basic contemporary visual themes and approaches to art students.
 (view from Abiquiu House)
Abiquiu is most renowned as the longtime home of Georgia O’Keefe. Her house (not open to the public without reservations booked well in advance) is especially striking not just because its the only structure that seems really well maintained, but because Abiquiu is an ancient pueblo town, that hasn’t been overrun like some others in the region. I remember reading years ago that Indian kids thought she was a witch. It’s easy enough to see why when one, you consider her later appearance, and two, you see the “town”, which is really just an old adobe church (famous from her work) and like many Indian towns across the US, a scattering of impoverished-seeming small houses and trailers. What a strange interloper she must have appeared in their midst.
More upscale homes, Earthships, and other myriad off-the-griders are to be found throughout the surrounding valley (like the Abiquiu House, where we stayed.)  A move would be tempting, but for lack of any way at this point to pay for a life there.

We spent a day in Santa Fe (40 minutes south), and one in Taos (an hour east/northeast). Northern New Mexican cuisine is one of my favorites – something about that distinctive bitter tang of the chilies. So we had some of the best at Orlando’s in Taos, which I even prefer to the famous Maria’s down in Santa Fe (which is also nonetheless fab.) It’s unpretentious, cheap, and always packed. We bought some obligatory silver at the Taos Pueblo, which is a bit upgraded from my last visit a decade ago, I assume due to a tiny new casino they’ve opened down the street. Then, I finally made it to the Harwood Museum, expressly to see the Agnes Martin room.

(Harwood Museum in winter)
The Harwood is a little museum devoted to art of the Taos scene, founded in 1923. It’s a beautiful building, much of it quite quaint, as is much of its collection. There is much to “appreciate,” but little to feel much enthusiasm for. On the whole, I found the experience a little depressing, seeing the vivid landscapes of the region processed and packaged over a century into the cliché language of “art” that fills dozens of cheesy galleries around town, and many in Santa Fe. A selection of work by the late “Bill Gersh – Taos Original” underscored the feeling, only with bright pop-y colors and standard Southwest imagery (crude dogs and cowboys and guitars – ugh), in Red Groomsian, pseudo-neo-expressionist cartoon constructs.

(Gersh self-portrait)
A longtime Taos resident, Agnes Martin donated seven paintings (the number revealing her Theosophical bent) in the mid-‘90s, which were worth a fortune even then, and the museum rightfully spent a million bucks building a gallery to house them. In an interview, I remember Martin saying that you could walk out of her gallery there and see that everything else in the museum was in someway a depiction of “nature”, something in the world, and she wasn’t interested in that at all. I know how she felt. The aesthetic/critical step down exiting her gallery is steep. The selection of her work, pivoting around 4 Judd benches in an octagon shaped room, is “simply transplendent” (to borrow Houstonian Shelley Duvall’s best line from Annie Hall. I think she was describing a Bob Dylan concert.)

I admit that her titles maybe don’t always thrill me (“Love”, “Love in Spring”, “Love Flower”, “Love in the Afternoon” and suchlike – I’m making some of these up). This wasn’t helped by their emphasis on big, crooked, amateurish foam-core cards with titles in 72 point font on the walls next to the paintings. Everything is right, down to the benches, and then they have to go and ruin it with bad signage. Sigh. Her work nearly always benefits from being seen in small groupings like this (is that one still at the Met?); be sure to take advantage of this one sometime. It’s on par now with some of the great single dead-artist pilgrimage sites – Marfa, the Rothko Chapel, Spiral Jetty, etc.

She is the preeminent artist of cool restraint, even more so I’d argue than someone like Ryman, who feels downright Dionysian by comparison. Martin’s seven paintings here are constrained just to the use of grey, blue, and white, not including even any of those pale orange/pinks prevalent in the 90’s, when these paintings were made. This lends them a particularly winter-y air. There is a tendency to pick out favorites among them, but they very much act as a singular environment. Gazing from one picture to another, one’s senses quickly become attuned to her operation, and the surprisingly different sensations created from relatively subtle alterations in the placement of a few horizontal lines, and arrangements of hue, raw canvas, and touch. Martin was able, through dedicated activity and a religious devotion to the power of pure abstraction, to generate subtle but powerful effects in the psyche. I would be skeptical of such claims if I hadn’t experienced it, again and again, encountering her work.

Looking online at some websites for galleries in Santa Fe, I came across Charlotte Jackson Gallery. I mention it because Martin is much beloved by a couple generations now of lyrically-oriented, post-minimal painters. I suspect a good percentage of them show with Jackson. Clicking through her artist page, I started to laugh, incredulous that page after page after page simply showed selections of monochrome slabs. Can a gallery really specialize in just that? I mean, how many small squares of single colors can a person own, or one gallery show, or an artist even make?

It reinforces how Martin is impressive for what her pictures do, not the style in which she did it. She struggled for decades to find her unique expression. How can thirty artists painting small single-color canvases claim to do the same? What do group shows there look like? Makes me want to curate a conceptual show, where everyone submits nothing.
You can’t just traffic in the intensity of your “refined phenomenology.” We have Martin; we have Klein; we have Fontana, and Irwin, and Turrell, and the lot. I’m all about sensorial sublimation and dogged inquiry, but don’t artists like Jackson’s just bore themselves to tears? The aura of such unmistakable “seriousness” accorded to artists like them is, ironically, washed out in the spotlight of a single dealer’s attention.
(next: back to that Denver Art Museum travesty, which (is it possible?) is worse than a year ago, save a great survey of yet another great German painter.)

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