I lived in the present, which was
that part of the future you could see.
The past floated above my head,
like the sun and the moon, visible but never reachable.
from ‘Landscape’ by Louise Glück, in the collection Averno
Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.Agnes Martin, 1989
My paintings have neither objects nor space or time nor anything — no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.Agnes Martin, 1966
Last Saturday we took the train to London & walked from Waterloo along the South Bank to the Tate to see the beautiful and lucid works in the Agnes Martin exhibition. I’d read that her work doesn’t reproduce well, and now I agree: the subtleties of texture and tiny variations in colour were invisible in the books and prints they were selling outside the exhibition. I think it’s the imperfections in her quest for perfection that make her work so captivating. Now she’s looking down on me from the wall, shy, but encouraging.
Martin died in 2004 at the age of 92. This from the final page of the exhibition booklet, italics mine: “As she grew older and became less physically able, Martin reduced the size of her large paintings from 72 by 72 inches (183 centimetres) to 60 by 60 inches (152 centimetres) so she could handle them more easily. She drove to her small studio almost every morning from her home in an assisted living facility nearby and continued to create works until 2004.”
We walked on to Borough Market for lunch & then joined the queue for coffee from Monmouth. T was still talking about the amazing smells three days later. Then back along the river — the walk so familiar, so many years of our lives in which this stretch of water has been a touchstone.
This is where the Starbucks used to be where I told A that I was pregnant — and that turned out to be you, I said to T. This is the pub I sat outside with my team from work on the day I found out that I was pregnant with you, I told the Moose. This is the bridge I used to walk across everyday when I worked in the House of Commons. This is the bridge I used to walk across when I worked near Trafalgar Square.
B showed them the bridge that he walks across on the days he doesn’t take the tube. We were, quite rightly, mainly ignored. The Moose continued to insist that it wasn’t a river at all, but the sea. There were buskers, sand sculptors, skateboarders and parkour artists to watch. The coins were taken from my purse, one by one, and thrown into buckets and hats until nothing remained. T who knows the value of the coins would take a 20p over a 10p, but the Moose opted for the largest coin every time.
Leaving London felt hard, but when we got off the train and walked down the hill from the station the city looked so safe and familiar and beautiful against its backdrop of green hills that I fell in love with it all over again. This is what it looks like every night when I get back, B told me.
More on Martin:
Artist Deborah Barlow on Martin’s essential unknowability (and Elena Ferrante); this is just the tip of the Agnes Martin iceberg at Deborah Barlow’s wonderfully thought provoking blog.
Olivia Laing on Agnes Martin in the Guardian.
The exhibition is going to Düsseldorf, Los Angeles and New York over the next year.