by Christina Rosenberger, author of Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin
“I had a hundred foot-long-loft,” Agnes Martin recalled, to the envy of more than a few New Yorkers. “It had two skylights and fourteen-foot ceilings with great beams, and at the end of every beam you could see daylight.” Located at 28 South Street, this was the final loft that Martin would inhabit near Coenties Slip before she abruptly gave up painting in 1967. “Windows right across on the river,” Martin continued, noting that the East River was so close that she “could see the expressions on the faces of the sailors.” One wonders what they thought of the artist staring back at them.
A highly anticipated retrospective of Martin’s work opens at the Solomon R. Guggenheim on today, after earlier presentations at Tate Modern, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This is not the first time that Martin has shown work at the Guggenheim—her art was featured in American Drawings in 1964, and in Lawrence Alloway’s Systematic Painting exhibition two years later. And if a New York venue is a homecoming of sorts for Martin, who lived in the city multiple times from the 1940s through the 1960s, she is still most strongly identified with her time on Coenties Slip.
Indeed, the physical remnants of the Slip are visible in works like The Garden, from 1958, now on view at the Guggenheim. Martin made at least four constructions from found objects in 1958, including Kali, The Garden, The Laws and Water. The constructions incorporate boat spikes, bottle tops, drawer pulls, wires and wooden pegs, and range in size from eleven inches to nearly eight feet high. Seen within the context of a retrospective, they appear anomalous—a momentary investigation of three-dimensional form as Martin refined her aesthetic vision. But like many artists on the Slip, Martin scavenged the docks to find inexpensive materials with which to counter the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Eschewing large, expensive canvases for materials that were readily available, Martin worked out crucial ideas through the tactile and pictorial qualities of her materials.
And the water—always so important to Martin—became a recurring theme in Martin’s work as well. Night Harbor, a hauntingly beautiful oil painting from 1960, offers eighteen blue-green circles set in a grid against a blue ground, bordered by two brown bands. The circles are ringed with graphite, which catches the light—much as the waves of the ocean do, when hit by the light of a beacon. Describing her own loft on South Street, the fiber artist Lenore Tawney recalled, “At night the boats were like Venetian glass, you know they’d be all lighted up and going along on this water…So there I was right on the river, looking at the river and the boats and the lights of Brooklyn… It was as if New York was at my back.”
Martin, famously, painted with her back to the world—a claim that many will interrogate as they view her paintings in the Guggenheim’s rotunda. But what if one left the museum behind, in search of the moment of creation? Take the subway to Broad Street and walk south, to the river.
Don’t miss Christina’s previous post on Agnes Martin. To get a copy of Drawing the Line, visit your local bookstore and select museum stores, or purchase online at IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on ucpress.edu, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).
Christina Bryan Rosenberger is an art historian living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a contributor to Tate Modern’s 2015 exhibition catalogue Agnes Martin and recently wrote on Martin’s 1978 film Gabriel for Artforum. She has taught modern art at the University of New Mexico and has served as Research Coordinator for the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museums.