Summer, 1965 by Agnes Martin
Watercolor, ink, gouache on paper, 9 ¼ x 9 ¼ in
“I am not a woman”, Agnes Martin famously remarked, and validating the statement is her art. It is decidedly masculine in its strict lines and geometry, at a time when her male contemporaries like Jackson Pollock were exploring the ‘feminine’ and sensuous qualities of paint through action painting. Summer (1965) depicts one of Martin’s iconic grids, painted on paper with a rich blue watercolour washed background, overlaid with a nearly black lined grid enclosing a light blue dot in each. It was painted in the early portion of her career, as evident in the nature themed title, and although she always maintained that her work was non-objective, she does evoke nature’s beauty in an emotional sense. More importantly, this painting is a stunning example of Martin’s goal of perfection, as she maintained: “I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.”
This painting is structurally rigid but manually imperfect. The watercolour and ink wash is very gestural, a quality not often seen in Martin’s serene paintings but appears to be an exploration that would lead to her later work, in which she uses acrylic paint in light translucent washes mimicking watercolours. The uneven wash leads the eye across the painting, and appears to be rippling gently. It is this wash-moving with emotion-that affirms Martin’s position as an Abstract Expressionist, even though her methods are Minimalist. The carefully constructed grid is much bolder than the trembling pencil lines in most of Martin’s other work, and creates the illusion of a three-dimensional pictorial surface, with the unevenly thick lines dipping in and out of the blue as they divide the painting into small squares. The dots within each square bring to mind Yayoi Kusama’s infinity net paintings; here too no two dots are the same, but like cousins, all are within the same parameters of mark making. The interplay between the tightness of the closed grid and the inconsistent, flowing nature of the blue wash gives the painting a depth, and looking at it up close makes it seem as if it is a stack of blue boxes placed next to each other. Each box is a painting in itself, and wherever your eye roams, there is something different to appreciate. From a farther distance, however, the grid dissolves into a monochromatic surface.
'Summer' is a unique painting compared with the rest of Martin’s oeuvre of quiet and poised paintings. It ripples with emotion and rewards the viewer who spends more time with it. I chose to analyse this painting, because even though I couldn’t see it physically, I stopped short in my scrolling when I came across it. There is a mesmerising quality in that deep blue and the pulsating dots. Amongst all the artists in the course, Martin’s work intrigued me the most. The concept of a perfect painting held together by completely imperfect elements is fascinating to me, and the seemingly simple painting is in fact has such wonderful visual complexity. This is a painting one can get lost in, almost meditatively. It encapsulates the artists undying quest for perfection and pure abstraction. “Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my paintings,” Martin wrote.
Critical analysis of a painting written as part of the course requirements for In The Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting (a course by MoMA on Coursera).