Trip to Dia:Beacon along the Hudson river


Agnes Martin paintings at Dia:Beacon

Dia:Beacon is located about 60 miles north of Manhattan, New York. The train from Grand Central Station runs alongside the Hudson river, with a slate beach close to the track. The train passes jetties and wooden houses on its way to Beacon, a small place that houses the Dia art galleries within surrounding grounds of trees. On the day that I visited it poured with rain. I arrived just after the gallery opened around 11am and stayed until it closed at 6pm. There were enough paintings and sculptures to keep me occupied all day, with an excellent bookshop and cafe.

Agnes Martin’s paintings occupy two adjoining galleries, with the ‘Innocent Love’ series from the 90s purposely made for the gallery in one space and some older works in the second space. The natural light filters in from slanted roof windows and changes according to the light outside. I had seen some of Agnes Martin’s paintings before in the Tate galleries, London but in the Dia galleries the paintings seemed to emanate light. Particularly along the top edge, where they seemed to have an afterimage that extended into the space above the paintings. The arrangement of paintings allowed the works to be in dialogue with each other. I moved from side to side, towards their surfaces and away. At a distance they seem to float, close up I became aware that the paint was so thin in some areas as to seem to be only a residue on the surface. The earlier works showed the logical sequence of progression from geometric shapes and grids to the later works with bands of pale washy paint. The pencil lines of the grids seemed to have dissolved into the paint. I became aware of how important light is to Martin’s paintings and how slight the traces of paint were upon the surfaces of her later works.

Concealment: The Hidden Image

I have recently been drawing grids in pencil, which are then lightly erased.  The lines are fragile and delicate – parts have disappeared and remain only in ghost-like form.  They are drawn on semi-transparent Ingres paper with lines imprinted within it.  The drawing is polished with tissue, leaving a soft surface sheen.  They are hidden images; a secret language imprinted into the paper surface.

In the British Museum there are some wonderful examples of Chinese Porcelain from the time period around AD 1403- 1424.  The bowls have intricate designs; sometimes flowers, and often dragons with wispy clouds.  The bowls are white or yellow; the image pressed into the porcelain beneath a clear glaze in what is called the Anhua technique (meaning hidden image or secret language).  The designs can only be seen when the bowls are held up to the light. In the display cases the images are visible in parts where the light reflects on them.

The hidden image occurs often in painting.  Sometimes as Pentimenti – literally meaning that the painter has ‘repented’ and painted over an original image.  These can be revealed by scientific means in the case of old masters.  Or the hidden image can be deliberate.  It may form an underpainting or drawing which provides structure for a subsequent painting or it may be integral, revealing itself in parts through the upper glazes of paint.  Transparency and layering are useful methods that the painter can employ, adding depth to the surface.

Agnes Martin has drawn grids beneath layers of gesso or acrylic paint.  Callum Innes has marked out vertical lines beneath a painting with a transparent orange glaze, on which constellations of loosely placed dots float.  I have seen an image of one such painting – it holds incredible beauty.  Richard Tuttle, an artist who was close to Agnes Martin, has described her use of colour as ‘tender’.  I think this can also be applied to the application of paint and the drawn line in the work of both Agnes Martin and Callum Innes.