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.
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.
The number of forms which clouds may take is almost infinite, but for purposes of description it is necessary to adopt some kind of classification, though whatever classification is used there must at times be border-line cases when a cloud seems to fall half-way between two classes and perhaps belong to neither.
The systems of classification which have been proposed have sometimes been based on the observed appearance of the cloud and at other times on the supposed method of formation. There can be no doubt that the former is the correct method since an observer is able to judge definitely of the appearance while the method of formation of a given cloud must be to some extent a matter of opinion.
The Meteorological Glossary, Air Ministry Meteorological Office, 2nd edition, 1930
I have been looking at Agnes Martin’s paintings. They are similar in a way to clouds: her paintings are delicate with diffused colour. Although there is a guiding principle in their creation, they cannot be the same as each other. It is true that she drew horizontal lines or grids, but they are not rigid geometric forms. The pencil lines are lightly drawn across the canvas and are broken by the uneven surface.
The paintings are light – very light. They are so light that it is hard to capture them in a photograph. The paint is brushed thinly in lots of pale brushstrokes, which gives a dappled effect. Or, there are washes of uneven translucent paint. Agnes Martin painted the bands of colour in a vertical position on the canvas and then turned the painting so that the bands were horizontal.
The colours are not quite contained within the pencil lines. Sometimes they spill over slightly and often the lines do not quite reach the edge of the canvas. The lines frame the delicate colours and hold the thin washes in rhythmic bands. Early grid paintings of the 1960s have a denser mesh of lines. Later paintings of the eighties and nineties by comparison are more open with a lot of space between the lines.
I recently drew a small grid in graphite pencil on translucent parchment and then drew over it carefully with a pale pink pencil. The pink lines did not always cover the grey graphite lines, and the pink was not easily visible when it was on the grey lines. It was intermittent. Then I went to see Agnes Martin’s painting Morning (1965), and there were grey pencil lines drawn in a grid format with pink pencil lines in the same irregular way, the same intermittent colour.
This grid was a six foot square painting. Seen on this scale, the mesh of pencil lines formed a soft haze. Perhaps Agnes Martin’s paintings are like clouds?
Pale Thin Vaporous