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Worth a Pilgrimage

A journey to the Agnes Martin Gallery in Taos, N.M., offers a stunning, even spiritual, place for viewing contemporary art.

April 12, 1998|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

TAOS, N.M. — Since late last summer, most of the national attention directed at art in New Mexico has focused on the long-awaited opening of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. The new museum is an expensively produced tourist attraction just off the plaza in the center of town, reflecting the artist's iconic status and her huge popularity with general audiences.

By stark contrast, a 90-minute drive northeast of Santa Fe leads to the very different home of another permanent museum display, which opened with considerably less fanfare five months ago. It too is dedicated to an esteemed painter who is a longtime resident of the state--albeit one whose name resonates more in art circles than with the general public. Built as an addition to the historic Harwood Museum, a beautiful 1918 adobe now under the auspices of the University of New Mexico, the new Agnes Martin Gallery is a gorgeous installation. So gorgeous, in fact, it seems destined to become a pilgrimage site for avid followers of contemporary art.

Unlike the tens of millions of dollars lavished on the O'Keeffe Museum and its small, uneven collection, the Martin Gallery was part of a larger building renovation and expansion, designed by the Albuquerque firm of Kells + Craig, whose total budget was a modest $1.5 million. Its lovely suite of seven Martin paintings, made in 1993 and early 1994, were a gift of the critically celebrated artist, who lives in Taos and turns 87 this year.

The gallery is an intimate octagonal white room, set off by itself in a rear corner on the first floor, with sturdy oak floors and an opaque cylindrical skylight. The paintings, each 5 feet square and all mounted in brushed-aluminum strip frames, are hung one to a wall; the eighth wall is pierced by a doorway. Beneath the skylight in the center of the room stands a cluster of four plywood-box stools, designed in a severe, geometric style by the late Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd and stained the color of autumnal aspen leaves.

As in all of Martin's best work, it's plain that these paintings were mapped out in advance with meticulous care. They're composed from cool horizontal stripes of pale blue and white paint, sometimes delineated by pencil lines, and in a variety of combinations and complexities.

In the first picture, for instance, four white bars alternate with four pale blue bars. In the second, four narrow blue bars are separated by three wide white bars. In the third, six pairs of off-white and off-blue bars are separated by five thin white lines. And so forth around the room.

There doesn't seem to be a distinct pattern at work from painting to painting, except that the seven appear to alternate in terms of visual complexity. Sometimes the blue was over-painted with white, tamping down the tone. Brush marks show that the paint was applied thinly and in short, steady, methodical strokes across the canvas. The horizontality of the bars and the brush strokes nudges you from picture to picture around the room, while the repeated square format acts as a gentle brake, encouraging pauses.

The Martin Gallery is by no means a dark or dimly lit room, but most visitors still automatically start to whisper when they enter. The paintings and their harmonious environment gently carve out a space for quiet contemplation. Both the individual compositions and the differences between pictures are subtle and nuanced, slowing down the otherwise busy pace of normal perception.

Without any pictorial references to actual landscape elements, these pictures recall the distinctive experience of the remarkable New Mexican desert outside. They do it in rigorously abstract terms.

The dual components of surface and edge are critical to geometric abstraction, and both loom large here. In these spare, carefully controlled fields, surface and edge assume a richness and resonance that give the slightest inflection of the brush or mark of pencil an outsize gravitas. These works feel uncannily vast and filled with an expansive light--even though paintings 5 feet square possess a distinctly intimate, bodily scale.

That wonderful paradox animates much of Martin's work. The Harwood installation is a pacific daydream, in which acute attention to the detailed nuances of form establishes, in the viewer, a surprising sense of formlessness. Martin's art, as critic Peter Schjeldahl once nailed the gently destabilizing experience, stirs in us "an oceanic feeling."

I'd seen this suite of paintings once before, at the 1995 Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh, but the group looked rather dull there. Conventionally hung and artificially lit in a large gallery with tall walls, the paintings seemed adrift. By contrast, in the carefully calibrated, enveloping Taos installation, which was the brainchild of Harwood Museum Director Robert M. Ellis, they fairly sing.

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