Melodrama may not resonate as an appropriate word to describe the rigid gridline structures that the American artist Agnes Martin developed in the early 1960s. These paintings vary in size, shape and colour, but are all based on the the same visual language: thinly-traced grids, occasionally accompanied with other geometrical shapes such as dots or small triangles. Everything is controlled, tight, and calculated.
Not only does Martin’s work appear unrelated to the idea of melodrama, it seems like she actively seeks to repudiate it. Having experimented with abstract expressionism earlier on in her career, Martin moves away from it drastically in these later works. Her grids refuse the idea that the artist is psychologically bound within the making of the artwork, Martin herself stating that “the work is completely apart from the person” and that her artworks “painted themselves”. The grid exists as a structure that opposes itself to an artwork’s symbolic potential, whilst Martin’s lack of free movement shows her reticence for any form of expressionism in her art.
Using monochrome and impersonal geometric shapes to reveal the potential of art detached from its so-called poetic and biographical character was a process very much used by minimalist artists. For instance, Robert Morris’ restricted use of pre-existing geometrical shapes in his 1964 Green Gallery Show in New York exemplifies the work’s immediate and un-coded physical impact on the viewer. The absence of colour or any kind of iconographic detail assured Morris that his work did not engage in any close relationship with the viewer, which would have compromised his work’s success at “avoiding intimacy”. In fact, melodrama could be seen as the enemy of some minimalist artists, who refused to let their works be understood as an emotional recipient for any sort of interpretation that would make their work “vulnerable”.
Because of the formal qualities of Martin’s work, critics and curators were often tempted to qualify her as a minimalist, and therefore make her part of the confrontation between expressionist melodrama and the more ascetic minimalism. Martin did in fact occasionally exhibit with minimalists, though she later described this as a mistake. Martin refused the label of “minimalist artist”, claiming her right for “freedom from ideas and responsibility”. She defied any sort of artistic category, and therefore the idea that her works were trying to escape any sort of personal or emotional resonance – which would have been a distinctively minimalist approach – may now be reconsidered.
If formally her systemic and abstract grids appear to be anything but expressive, Martin’s approach to her art and her technique generates a different sensibility. Martin’s refusal to be classified as a member of the minimalist movement can be explained by her own belief that her works were expressive. They were not abstract expressionist paintings like those of Pollock, who literally poured his soul into his works, but Martin did believe her works carried meaning and emotion. In fact, the titles of her grid paintings are always very explicit, such as Friendship or Rose. Martin declares that when “I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind”. The source of the grid is not abstract but anchored in the natural, tangible world. Moreover, she talks about her grids and “visions”, confirming her own presence in the making of the work.
Martin’s technique is extremely organic, showing her personal investment in the making of these works. Unlike artists such as Robert Morris who relied on industrial methods to create his work, Martin made these grids manually. She experimented with various materials, and finally favoured acrylic. Acrylic dries very fast, and therefore would have limited the time Martin had to create the perfect grid, constraining her to work without interruption and transforming her art-making into a meditative process. Martin suffered from schizophrenia, one of the reasons why she eventually retired from the artworld at the end of the 60s before her comeback in 1973. The concentration and mental investment in these grids represented for Martin a soothing process through which she could reconnect with the natural world, not unlike Yayoi Kusama’s therapeutic, yet more theatrical, polka dots installations. The fragility of Martin’s lines in works such as Rose, now on display at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, further reveals how these lines are hand-drawn, making the works all the more personal and vulnerable, rather than automatic and industrial.
The therapeutic function of her hand-drawn grid canvases, as well as their spiritual connection to the natural world, allow us to question the idea that Martin’s works are devoid of all feeling. In fact, I believe Agnes Martin challenges the general assumption that melodrama is opposed to a stripped-down aesthetic. Her lines defy their declared status as fragile impersonal traces, and carry the whole emotional weight of her reaction to the world.
Martin famously stated that she painted with her “back turned to the world”. Perhaps she understood melodrama in the same way. Dealing with it through obsessive and dramatic repetition, Martin’s melodrama is not a spectacle for a preconceived and facile audience. She confronts us with fanatic repetition. The unstoppable and rhythmical sequence of lines takes on an overtly personal and expressive character and the simple grid suffices to capture and mystify the beauty of the natural world as well as the artist’s psyche. No exuberant outcry, no obvious emotional triggers. Martin re-defines melodrama as a subtle state of mind where excessive expression can reveal itself through the purest of forms and as a controlled, or uncontrollable, obsessive, repetition.