This Agnes Martin image is the nearest thing, formally, to her drawing Desert (1966) that I can find freely available online (via pop-pervert). I don’t want to be totally unscholarly, but I think it works ok as a reference point for now. The actual drawing is in the ICA Philadelphia exhibition catalogue Agnes Martin (1973), but I don’t have permission to publish it on a blog.
Here’s Frank Kolbert’s description of Desert:
“Desert” is a 9 inch square pen and ink drawing done in 1966 by Agnes Martin… It is a simple grid consisting of sixteen vertical parallel lines, each one-half inch apart, intersected perpendicularly by 46 horizontal parallel lines, each three-eighths of one inch apart. (At first glance most viewers assume it is merely a piece of graph paper which has been framed.)
The Kolbert quote about laughter I posted earlier this morning is my research springboard. As a collector of Martin’s work, Desert hung in his home; he could therefore observe visitors’ initial reactions on looking at the piece. I find it fascinating and strange that most people found the drawing funny.
These days (correct me in the comments if you have a different perspective), we typically view Martin’s pale canvases and meticulous drawings as ascetic and contemplative; classically beautiful; evoking vast abstract landscapes; or exercises in control. Kolbert’s report of laughter is the only one I’ve read or heard of.
The collector had some ideas as to what the laughter meant. He claimed that Martin’s work broke away from existing notions of what art could be: her work being too simple, too mechanical, like a piece of graph paper (perhaps non-art), a challenge to connoisseurs and critics alike.
Using this conception of her work as provocative, not contemplative, Kolbert’s essay covers territory of the absurd (Marcel Duchamp as Martin’s art historical precedent), urban planning (the grid in everyday life) and existential terror (from Martin’s two-dimensional grid there is “No Exit”: the drawing becomes an analogy of being trapped in a mental prison or arid desert of the mind).
The collector begins his essay by talking about laughter, but this leads to a commentary on absurdity, everyday modern experience, and existential terror. I admit, I’m hoping that psychoanalysis, so adept at exposing the uncomfortable aspects of life, will prove useful in making connections between what’s funny and what’s challenging.
Kolbert’s essay “Agnes Martin: The Desert” is in the University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library. To view more grid drawings, see MoMA’s wonderful, digital collection of Martins.