Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 23, 2018
Suzanne P. Hudson Agnes Martin: Night Sea Afterall. Cambridge and London: Afterall Books, 2017. 96 pp.; 16 color ills. Paperback $19.95 (9781846381713)

Suzanne Hudson’s contribution to the One Work series by Afterall (a research center of the University of the Arts London, located at Central Saint Martins) is focused on Night Sea, a painting by Agnes Martin (1912–2004) that Martin completed in 1963. The series is unique in its focus on the critical elaboration, by notable authors in the field, of individual works of art. Suzanne Hudson, associate professor of Art History and Fine Arts at the University of Southern California, has also written critical texts on painting, including Painting Now (2015) as well as Robert Ryman: Used Paint (2009). Additionally, she is the coeditor and coauthor of Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present (2013). First published in 2016, Hudson’s publication coincided with the acclaimed retrospective of Martin’s work organized by the Tate Modern in London in 2015 in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and which also traveled to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The One Work series is premised on the challenge that a single work can support a book-length discussion and offer insights that extend into “the way we understand art and its history.” The premise raises the question: What is distinctive enough about a particular artwork selected from within an artist’s extensive oeuvre that it can be seen to mark a pivotal moment or watershed in some way? For Hudson, Night Sea is crucial to understanding the shift Martin makes from composition derived from the process of painting to composition coming from “elsewhere, at a safe remove from the art” (17). One question this raises for Hudson, traced throughout the book, is where and what constitutes an “elsewhere.” Her tracing of this question provocatively loosens any straightforward narrative reception of Martin’s career—that she first develops her work in New York and achieves notoriety around 1963, the year that Night Sea was made, then moves to New Mexico to rediscover herself and her work. New Mexico is only one of the many “elsewheres” that Hudson’s careful attention and research invite us to rethink.    

Hudson sets the stage for Night Sea as one of the group of Martin’s classic grid paintings produced between 1960 and 1967. She remarks on the fact that it survived Martin’s practice of destroying works that did not achieve the status of the “real thing.” As Hudson deftly describes, Night Sea evidently appeared to the artist as the “real thing,” despite the fact that it includes the very imperfections attributed to the human hand when making and composing that drove Martin to “elsewhere” for the perfection she so desperately sought. Martin’s obsession with perfection not only organizes her work but, as the book suggests, her relations to her peers, her own self, her reception, and her world.

Hudson’s book is divided into three chapters, not titled but numbered. She spends much of chapter 1 establishing the turning point that Night Sea embodies. She offers a close reading of the painting, from how the three blues look so blue to the gold that might be a metallic crayon or threads of gold leaf underneath, an effect that oddly serves to enhance the sensation of blue, to the exact texture of the ground, to how the weave of the canvas is apparent throughout. This detailed description is necessary for two reasons. First, Martin’s work looks simple at a glance until the specific aspects of the choices made relative to the surface are noted, acknowledged, and recognized as concepts of the work. (Hudson’s book on Ryman, with individual chapters related to “primer,” “paint,” “edge,” “support,” and “wall,” is further evidence of the author’s attention to the significance of the specifics of painting). Secondly, Night Sea is a pivotal painting in part due to some of the imperfections or wavering lines to which Hudson draws our attention through her meticulous description. Importantly, Martin kept the painting despite all the “imperfections” convincingly demonstrated through Hudson’s description and evident in the single detail of the painting reproduced in the book. (Ideally, there would have been more than one detail reproduced to support Hudson’s close reading of the surface of the painting.) Ultimately, Hudson concludes that Night Sea is “wildly mutable,” a characteristic that is not only captured in Night Sea as a painting but also relevant as a description of Martin’s relationship to her own personal narrative, which she worked to control, change, and compose throughout her career. Phrased another way, Hudson describes the painting’s mutability as “interminable reversals of priority—stasis versus movement, frontality versus recession, colour versus line”—which emphasize the most mutable of all tensions: “death and rebirth” (65). In this way, the wild mutability of Night Sea is emblematic of Martin’s relationship to her life and career.

Chapter 2 opens with the fact that 1963 was also a pivotal year for the reception of Martin’s work, which Hudson demonstrates through references to critical responses, reviews, and letters, working to establish the various conversations, intimacies, and critical reflections on Martin’s career. Evidence of the level of research and sifting of sources can be found in the 228 notes at the end of this small volume. If there is one addition that might be made to the notes, underscoring and extending Hudson’s characterization of Night Sea as “wildly mutable” in terms of its drive for clarity, it would be Rosalind Krauss’s essay “The / Cloud/,” written for the 1992 retrospective of Martin’s work. While Hudson does refer to Krauss’s earlier essay “Perceptual Fields,” written with Marcia Tucker in 1976, as well as the widely known essay on “grids” from 1979, Krauss’s later essay further develops the thesis that, despite the stability of the grid, there is a dynamic in the perceptual field that cannot be perfected or controlled.

Through her extensive research into letters, reviews, and correspondence, Hudson also raises a central issue concerning Martin’s control of her own story. As Hudson states, the one thing that stayed intact throughout Martin’s life was “the structure of Martin’s disavowal” (39). Those disavowals included influences, friendships, and the role of Minimalism, unless, as Martin herself remarked, they were “strategically necessary.” Martin’s departure from New York was in part due to her disavowal of Minimalism, with which she was associated despite her self-proclaimed interest in the “expressive.” Hudson offers us a rigorous discussion around the question of influence, which Martin herself addressed, and which gives us a nuanced picture of the issues surrounding the expressive, the subjective, and the ego at play throughout Martin’s career. As Hudson succinctly states, “Martin’s level of technical refinement allows the viewer access to her own private experience without the artist standing in the way” (44). Martin’s interest in absence, in part attributable to her interest in Eastern philosophy, is a prominent and significant point Hudson underscores throughout the book.

The acts of moving aside or looking below the surface are particularly evident in the complicated relationship Martin has to the landscape. Despite critical reception of the work as variously mapped to the landscape, Martin herself resisted such readings and instead insisted on the “beauty” that underlies the landscape or the “aesthetic system” that is primary to the work. As a case in point, Hudson describes the suite of thirty screen prints, On a Clear Day, begun in 1971 and exhibited in 1973, marking Martin’s return to art after her departure from New York in 1967. The suite of prints contains the clarity Martin wished to achieve in her works. Hudson makes an incisive comparison between the portfolio of prints and Night Sea in the sense that On a Clear Day achieved for Martin a sense of lucidity in relation to the subject of landscape. If Night Sea falls short of the achievement of On a Clear Day, it is only because that lucidity was still to come, or as Hudson poetically states, it existed on a “distant shore.”

In the last chapter, Hudson concludes the book by addressing Martin’s consistent predilection for water as one of the many repetitions throughout the artist’s career. Not only are several of Martin’s paintings titled with water references, but her writings also include many references to water. Additionally, Hudson draws our attention to water in a text by Martin from 1966 in which she describes her ambition for her work as the challenge “to accept the necessity of the simple direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean” (47). In this sense, Hudson proposes that Martin’s development is recursive, representing a loop more than a linear trajectory. Her career does not have a pinnacle, there is no single career narrative, and as Martin herself suggests, the first work is as good as the last. In some ways, we return as readers to the insight Hudson offers early on about Night Sea—that it is “wildly mutable”—in the same way, one might suggest, the undulations of Martin’s life and career are capricious. Hudson’s close readings of the painting and of the literature surrounding Martin does a great service by opening up a narrative not only of the artist but of the discipline of painting as well. 

Laura Lisbon
Professor, Department of Art, Ohio State University