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Weekly Alibi Art of Invisibility

The Clear, Moving Work of Agnes Martin.

By Jeffrey Lee

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Words about visual art are always beside the point, and it's especially hard to say anything about art that is as drastically reduced as Agnes Martin's. How is it that Martin, with her evenly spaced horizontal and vertical lines and her hushed palette, has produced a body of work that is so moving? Her works on paper are smaller, slighter versions of the painstaking grids she has been making on 5- and 6-foot square canvases for 40 years. Seeing these small pieces is not like standing in front of a painting that is as tall as you are, but they are, in their way, mysteriously affecting.

The Taos artist's grids, some of them traced in lines of graphite so faint they seem to be emerging from or disappearing into a mist, prompted Nicolas Calas to call Martin's an "art of invisibility." It's tempting to read a "beyond" into them; the surface holds so few clues, so little to go on, really. Martin's own statements about what she does tend to verge on the mystical, and the Museum of Fine Arts' dim, reverential lighting encourages a church-like viewing of the work. But whatever they do for the soul, it would be a mistake to let their mystical suggestiveness overshadow what they are, first and foremost: gorgeous, uncompromising challenges to the eye. Two early New Mexico landscapes and a couple of later deviations from the Martin grid are included in this exhibit of work from the late 1950s through the '90s. "Eight Fish Under Water," a 1963 drawing, varies Martin's ruled lines with tiny, regular groups of dots, and the eight geometric shapes that represent the "fish." The fish shapes are a reminder that the grid they're floating beneath is a not only a mathematical structure, but one derived from the physical world, like the repetition of waves or ripples on the surface of a pond.

You could mistake Martin, who was honored with a Whitney retrospective in 1992 and a Golden Lion at last year's Venice Biennale, for a Minimalist. But the hard, machine-edged lines of Minimalism are worlds apart from her precisely repeated, subtly varied lines, each of which shows the human presence of her hand. The occasional, but deliberate, breaks and wobbles--only one or two in each drawing, usually tiny and easy to miss--are crucial to an Agnes Martin composition. When she writes about her work, the artist uses words like "joy" and "perfection," but the geometric purity it aspires to is a Platonic ideal, imperfectly translated to canvas or paper. With its purposeful "flaws," the quiet, joyful space between real and ideal is exactly what Martin's work celebrates.

More than anything, Agnes Martin's works on paper narrow and focus the eye's attention. You have to stand close to them. You have to "read" every line. They demand intimacy and a kind of commitment. But what they give back, in their simplicity and richness, is indescribably moving.?

Works on Paper by Agnes Martin is on display at Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe through Aug. 24. Call (505) 827-4468.

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