Although Martin’s work aligns visually with an abstract sensibility in its denial of representational or figurative subject matter, her paintings also reject the exaltation of the male gesture, a defining tendency of many of the Abstract Expressionist artists with whom she is often compared. In response to their fevered action painting, Martin embraced a more meditative approach, which led to her adoption of the square and the grid. Her use of this classically Minimalist structure, however, did not signify an alignment with the tenets of that movement, which sought to erase the personal aspect of art and remove all traces of the artist’s hand. Instead, Martin underlined her artistry with a graphite signature, as the subtle inconsistencies and occasional hesitancy of her lines reassert her real and very human presence in the work. These lines are laid down on muted grounds of neutral hues or softened washes of pigment that mark a further contrast to the dramatic palettes of the Abstract Expressionists and bold primary colors of Minimalism. As beautifully embodied in Untitled #3, Martin’s exceptional works resonate with a quiet stillness that is at once deeply personal and sublimely transcendent.
Arguably the most rewarding element of this canvas is Martin’s emblematic pencil marks. When viewed from a distance, the repeated horizontal lines appear straight and ordinary, virtually disappearing into the hushed tonality of the expanse. Upon closer inspection, however, each ruling is entirely unique, characterized by slight irregularities where Martin picked up her pencil, paused, and then resumed, or where the textured surface of the paint discreetly diverts the path of her hand. Without any other distractions, the eye follows the gossamer thin strands as they traverse the monochrome canvas from left to right. Beginning and ending at uneven distances from the edge of the canvas, the thinnest marks appear to float on top of the textured surface, vibrating with a quiet energy that is balanced by the thicker bands, which wrap around the edges like a kind of anchor. Such remarkable dynamism is heightened by the monumental scale of this picture. Martin considered her canvas, six-by-six-foot, “a size you can walk into.” (A. Martin quoted in Benita Eisler, “Profile: Life Lines,” The New Yorker, January 25, 1993, p. 81) Facing this work, the viewer is enveloped in its meditative hum, and absorbs the calm serenity that is such a celebrated feature of Martin’s praxis.
As essential in creating this contemplative experience is the soft, subdued tonality of the work. One of her transitional “grey paintings” of the late 1980s, Untitled #3 represents a significant shift in Martin’s oeuvre. Instead of the translucent washes of color seen in her earlier compositions, these paintings were executed in a palette of muted grey, with layers of paint creating matte, opaque surfaces that serve as a bridge between her early and later works. Marking a departure from her earlier technique of gradually applying sheer washes to develop a pale haze of color, in the works from 1988 and 1989 Martin engaged a palette knife to build a thicker surface of undiluted pigment, muffling the weave of the canvas in a blanket of rich white and greyscale tones. Far from smothering the work’s energy, however, the added tactility of the surface creates a depth and vitality that unmistakably presages the spiritual power of Martin’s later canvases. Untitled #3 thus evinces the artist’s formidable intelligence, keen focus, and masterful skill at balancing numerous dichotomies. Even as it paradoxically suggests a reduction to the barest artistic bones of graphite overlaid on pigment, the resulting luminous masterpiece is breathtaking in its sophisticated brilliance.
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