projection 51

by Agnes Martin (78 MINUTES, U.S.A., 1976, COLOUR, DVD)

Tuesday 28th July 2015 18.30

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Gabriel by Agnes Martin

We are delighted to welcome Dr. Ed KrĨma, Lecturer in History of Art, UCC, who will introduce this screening.

Currently the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern, the life's work of Canadian born artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004) displays an unflinching dedication to the expression of her ideas through abstract, geometric forms.

In a rare digression from painting, and the only film Martin ever completed, Gabriel oscillates between fixed views of abundant nature to tracking the explorations of a young boy through the New Mexico landscape near where the artist lived. Evocative of the understated and transparent luminosity of her square canvases, Gabriel offers insight to the profound status nature held for martin in an absorbing study conveying her acute sensitivity to natural occurrences of colour, pattern and form.

Curated by Leah Reynolds and Alice Butler.


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Upon hearing the news that artist Agnes Martin had a made a film — and in a fitting tie-over that links the EFC's previous screening with that of Gabriel — eminent art historian Rosalind Krauss ponders on what that film may be. Zorns Lemma, she settles upon, envisioning Hollis Frampton's systematized, rebus-like swath of images as akin to Martin’s tabular visual field of grids and lines.

Indeed, there are similarities. Formally speaking, static shots intersperse longer moving ones and certain tightly-framed shots repeat to build upon a kind of visual vocabulary. However, whilst the complexity of Frampton’s film models itself upon set theory and dialectical literary structures, Martin's motivation for Gabriel is far simpler. Her film was to be about 'innocence and happiness', in a gesture partly motivated to counter the negativity she felt was rife throughout the content of commercial film-making—and she made her ambitions clear that this film was to reach a wider, more mainstream audience. On meeting her close friend and art dealer, Arne Glimcher in New York, she instructed him that if 'anything should happen to me in New York in the next five days—if I should get killed, my film is in the trunk of my car at the airport...If I die, you get it and have it distributed. I want it to be distributed through Hollywood—through commercial film theatres’.(1) Overlooking the comedic drama of such a statement, this is significant given the level of scrutiny with which the majority of her paintings failed to survive—Martin possessed a ruthless attitude to destroying the canvases that did not live up to her vision; it is said we are only privy to a fraction of her output. Thus there is no reason to see Gabriel as a diversion or digression from her painting practice, but as a work in keeping with her commitment to a pure aesthetic and, more specifically, to the subject of innocence.

That said, Gabriel is an anomaly in Martin’s oeuvre in that the film directly links the subject of nature to Martin's vision—a connection deeply intertwined with Martin’s identity but one that became increasingly elusive in her paintings from the 1960s onward. Despite this, the theme of landscape and nature has remained central to much of the discourse surrounding her life and art. By 1960-61, Martin had abandoned the use of found materials and earthy, biomorphic compositions and established the grid in her painting practice. The grid would become her leitmotif, resurfacing again and again in her practice for over five decades. The sheer length of time dedicated to the form reveals Martin to be something of misfit amongst other twentieth-century interpretations of the grid (and it is remarkable to note how such a rigid form can be molded to fit a whole range of ideologies and ideas that artists attached to it). The grid became a fixation for many modernist artists looking for a new visual language free from narratives of the past. Two renowned examples might be the discrete units and machine-like aesthetic of the Minimalists, or, approximately four decades prior to this, Mondrian’s drive toward establishing a purely pictorial language, seeing it necessary to abolish the figure/ground relationship that tied abstraction to representation.

Martin’s claims on the grid format were, however, more subtle and less dogmatic, and made no less elusive by her inclination toward a hermetic, aphoristic style of writing and speaking, for example: ‘Moments of awareness are not complete awareness, just as moment of blindness are not completely blind’, or; ‘The life of the work depends upon the observer, according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration’.(2) Yet perhaps it is this very elusive quality that characterizes her thinking and aesthetic, rather than something in need of being resolved.

And so, if we are to ruminate on the subject of nature and landscape in her work—something that exists only implicitly in her nuanced girds—it seems reductive to speak of formal aspects that might signify such things as a horizon line, or a palette evocative of a sunset. With this aside, there is also the question of where an authentic aesthetic experience leaves off, and where the influence of biography and Martin’s own spoken words pick up? Perhaps such questions are futile, but there is something in the ineffability of her paintings affective power that is experienced by many who stand before them. It is tempting to understand this experience as analogous to the immersive and affective potential of connecting with the natural environment, or at least telling of our experience of beauty as something only analogical with natural beauty. Martin paintings and drawings tap into this elusive and enigmatic quality—and how peculiar that this experience may be recreated through something as anti-nature as the form of the grid.

But to return to Gabriel, where we track the wanderings of a boy through Martin’s beloved landscape (as much as he may seem to be just begrudgingly following orders at times). Nonetheless, on the surface, the simplicity of Martin’s motives are clear. The boy, here a personification of Martin's celebration and commitment to innocence, moves through the natural beauty of his surroundings to interludes of Bach’s joyous and exuberant Goldberg Variations—where the bountiful plenitude of nature in images of gushing water, sun-soaked land, and flowers dancing in the breeze, is suitably matched by the vitality of such a soundtrack. Despite its sentimentality at times seeming at odds with the cool restraint of Martin’s paintings, the film, if anything, gives us license to indulge in the positive states of innocence and rapture, and the simplicity of its anti-intellectualism. It is a film that nurtures the qualities of patience and absorption so evocative of her life and art. But, perhaps most interestingly, it is an opportunity for a prolonged insight into the perceptual world of Martin and the landscape that, however directly or indirectly, shaped Martin's lifestyle, writings, and painting.

- Leah Reynolds

1 Agnes Martin, 1972, cited in Arne Glimcher, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, London, New York, 2012, 88.
2 Ibid, 62.
'A Vision Beyond The Literal' - Agnes Martin By Alice Butler
A question that, with some inevitability, colours the experience of watching Agnes Martin’s Gabriel (1976) is how it relates to or complicates our understanding of the canvas work she is renowned for. It is a line of enquiry that compels, drawing out parallels as it does divergences, particularly when looking at the film’s relationship to the grid that appears in so much of Martin’s output from the period in which she embarked on making Gabriel.

Initially it seems as though Martin’s dedication to the grid form could have precluded any interest she may have had in filmmaking for, as Rosalind Krauss writes, “in the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.”(1) If Martin was drawn to the grid as a means of ‘crowding out the dimensions of the real’, (and if she was, it was certainly for other qualities too), is it not surprising that she would also have felt inclined to pick up a tool like a 16mm camera and use it in such a way as to document a reality, with the level of clarity and precision that only a camera can? It is this puzzle, and others that accompany it, that makes a film like Gabriel, that appears at first to be characterized by such simplicity, an intriguing, complex piece.

While filmmaking might seem at first to be the antithesis to realizing the predominantly abstract forms Martin bore out on canvas, there are several features that cross over from her practice in one medium to the other. The compulsion to evoke a state of innocence for instance - Martin said once that, for her, the grid ‘represented innocence’ - was the primary objective in making Gabriel.(2) Labour and repetition can also be said to be an attribute of both. In Gabriel, Martin captures a young boy with her handheld camera as he roams the New Mexico landscape near where she lived. However, at times her focus switches to static shots of nature: of a flower, of water, of the desert, or of trees. In the 78 minutes the film runs for, she returns repeatedly to these subjects and in the same way as her labour is made visible in distinctive hand drawn graphite lines, so too is it keenly felt in Gabriel in Martin’s sometimes shaky camerawork as she accustoms herself to the unfamiliar device.

It is not surprising that as the only film Martin ever completed, Gabriel is often used as a means of shedding light on the artist’s practice in general terms. It is also interesting to consider if the film can be seen to belong to any specific mode of filmmaking, particularly of the time in which it was made. In one sense, the film feels refreshingly light and free of reference to cinema’s burdensome history. In another though, alongside the debated materialist aspect of her art (Briony Fer asks, ‘... what could be more material than [Martin’s] concern with the medium, her laborious weaving of surface?’), it is interesting to posit whether the techniques Martin employed can be viewed as somewhat comparable to an experimental filmmaking approach.(3) This is probably most discernible in the frequently cited contrast that Martin establishes in shifting back and forth between motifs of stillness and motion - the stillness of a flower is set against a cascading waterfall, we see a swaying plant and then a forest of thin, stationery trees.

The other key structural component in Gabriel that might gesture towards an experimental method, is Martin’s use of extracts of Bach’s Goldberg Variations which play at various intervals throughout the film. The gaps left between these musical fragments recall the horizontal spaces between the pencil lines of Martin’s canvas work, particularly in some of her later pieces (Untitled #10 (1990) or Untitled #2 (1992)) and they highlight her attraction to empty, un-pitched staves. This device introduces a degree of tension to Gabriel in the sense that after each segment of music is over, the silence it leaves is filled with anticipation of whether the music will return and if so, when. A second source of tension that the presence of Bach’s music establishes is the stark difference in effect that is pronounced between the natural beauty of Gabriel’s plants and landscape and the man-made beauty of something as sophisticated as a Bach composition. The relationship between these different forms of beauty is heightened and tested by the breaks structured between each musical sequence, pauses that give us time to wonder about compatibility.

Remarkably, the cumulative effect of techniques used in Gabriel amounts to something akin to the experience of standing before one of her paintings or drawings - it incites the viewer’s mind to reflect as well as to wander, like the young boy, slightly adrift. Martin’s work is, as Briony Fer describes, about taking ‘the vision beyond the merely literal’, a designation that prompts an awareness of the influence of spirituality on Martin, something that at once triggers the image of the angel Gabriel, who is often depicted as a messenger from God.(4) This may well be coincidental, but in its invitation to the viewer to participate in an alternate way of seeing, Gabriel nevertheless becomes a radical, potentially transformative work, much greater in scale, scope and ambition than it first appears.

- Alice Butler

1 Krauss, Rosalind, Grids, October, Vol. 9 (Summer 1979), The MIT Press, p.50
2 Martin, Agnes, quoted in Laing Olivia,
3 Fer, Briony, The Infinite Line: Re-Making Art After Modernism, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 51
4 Ibid., p. 48