(Ann Wilson, "Linear Webs," Art and Artists 1, no. 7, October 1966, p. 6)
A gem-like vision of shimmering lines and saturated azure depths, Stars from 1963 utterly exemplifies Agnes Martin’s astounding and unparalleled ability to impart profound poignancy within the simplest and sparest of artistic vernaculars. Executed at a pivotal moment in Martin’s celebrated career, the present work is amongst the earliest exemplifications of the iconic grid which would, over the following four decades, come to form the foundation of her artistic legacy and indisputably influential contribution to the discourse of modern and contemporary art. Rendered with exacting precision, Martin’s delicate web of slender graphite lines articulates the specificity of her artistic touch with a captivating intimacy; simultaneously, glinting within the chromatic wash of cobalt ink like so many celestial bodies, the tiny pinpricks of white pigment evoke the sublime, expressive depths of the limitless night sky. Describing the subtle force of Martin’s oeuvre in terms particularly evocative of the present work, scholar Anna C. Chave reflects: “Rather than overlooked by critics, Martin’s quiet technique caused them to look all the more thoroughly, just as we may be impelled to lean forward and concentrate more intensely when a speaker’s voice is exceptionally soft.” (Anna C. Chave in “Agnes Martin: Humility, The Beautiful Daughter” in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum, Agnes Martin, 1992, p. 138)
Suspended in an atmosphere of rippling blue, the intricately delineated grid of Stars announces the dazzling arrival of Martin’s mature artistic mode with the quieted humility and soft-spoken subtlety for which the artist has become known. While the first phase of her career was characterized by frequent moves and breaks in production, it was over the course of 1963 that Martin’s pioneering painterly explorations would, with unwavering purpose, begin to coalesce into the first large scale paintings in which a grid serves as the predominant compositional structure. The grid, in its non-hierarchical structure, articulation of the flat surface, and immunity to representational imagery, was already a symbol of modernist abstract painting, exemplified in the work of the legendary Piet Mondrian, and further extrapolated in the oeuvres of such artists as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt (both close friends of Martin). Stars attests to the pivotal importance of the period in which, working from her studio in Coenties Slip and joined by such neighbors and contemporaries as Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and James Rosenquist, amongst numerous others, Martin discovered the specific formal and material parameters which would drive her extraordinary practice. The paintings from 1963, including Night Sea and Falling Blue, both in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Friendship, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, all exhibit the same unpainted border as Stars, the stark purity framing the central colored field with acute intention. Describing Martin’s output of 1963, scholar Tiffany Bell remarks: “All convey a strong impression of the painstaking effort it must have taken to make them—it is as though the energy of a Pollock drip painting has been stretched out and carefully sustained over time…The non-referential compositions and frontal presentations of [the] 1963 paintings emphasize the material presence of the object, while comprehension of the process—making something grand and beautiful from small, simple repetitive gestures—evokes more ambitious, expressive content.” (Tiffany Bell, “Happiness is the Goal,” in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, (and travelling), Agnes Martin, 2015, p. 27) The visual force of Martin’s nascent grid is exceptionally profound in Stars, the intimate scale of the paper requiring the viewer to draw close to fully explore the intricacies of the paper’s delicate texture, the variegated depths of the blue wash, and the unerring particularity of the meticulous white pinpricks; as eloquently described by Rosalind Kruass and Marcia Tucker, the fields of hue are transformed into “luminous containers for the shimmer of line,” her faint graphite lines evoking “buoyant motes of dust that dance in beams of sunlight.” (Rosalind Krauss and Marcia Tucker, “Perceptual Fields,” in Exh. Cat., Amherst, Fine Arts Center Gallery, University of Massachusetts, Critical Perspectives in American Art, 1976, p. 15)
As in the very finest of Martin’s large-scale canvases, the exquisite beauty of Stars lies, not in the symmetrical regularity of her grid, but in the singular sophistication with which she manipulates mark, material, and method to create works of rare sensitivity. In the present work, Martin’s interlocking vertical and horizontal pencil lines—“paradoxically, a signature without an ego”—are unspeakably rewarding for those who inspect them carefully, their miniscule overlaps and slight gaps articulating Martin’s presence as a constant, quiet murmur within the framework of the composition. (Douglas Crimp in Exh. Cat., New York, Dia Foundation, Agnes Martin, 2011, n.p.) Above the demure, lowercase signature in the lower right corner of the sheet, a string of minute red pinpricks, likely serving as ruler aids and points of origin for the central composition, further articulate Martin’s subtle presence within the work. Far from impersonal, the wavering undulations in the border of the saturated field reveal the variations of pressure and density inherent to the human touch; against the highly disciplined framework of Martin’s carefully considered grid, the tremulous fragility of Martin’s mark suggests the sublime union of precision and chance found only in the natural world. Indeed, describing the impetus behind her singular painterly practice, Martin herself reflected: “When I think of art, I think of beauty…Beauty illustrates happiness: the wind in the grass, the glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds—all speak of happiness.” Elaborating further, in terms that are remarkably evocative of the title of the present work, the artist concludes, “The clear blue sky illustrates a different kind of happiness, and the soft dark night a different kind. There are an infinite number of different kinds of happiness.” (Agnes Martin, “Beauty is the Mystery of Life,” cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Agnes Martin, 1992, p. 10) An exquisite embodiment of Martin’s signature strategies, Stars eloquently captures, not only the extraordinary sensitivity which defines the entirety of her celebrated output, but achieves the sublime expressiveness and same vast delicacy, as is articulated in the dark, shimmering swath of the evening sky.
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