Spot the difference (sorry.. actually not sorry) between Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin, the darling of minimalism, whose retrospective at Tate Modern opened this week. For each bears a method, a distinct style – or lack of, depending on how characterful you regard blobs and tiny lines – which is repeated with infinite variations, ad infinitum. Immediately, the bright colours with stark black and white blobs seem distant from Martin’s muted, considered, timid tones. Yet both display an obsessive mode of working (it is probably no small coincidence that both have experienced mental troubles and psychotic anomalies), of a persistent, unwavering hammering away at the same idea endlessly: this is minimalism as the mediating factor against invention. And both are distinctly lacking in warmth or human presence: like the decorative pumpkins people with money adorn their Kensington pads with, Martin’s pieces are equally functional-non-functional, on the same spectrum of decorative purpose. As many have commented: minimalism is a lifestyle choice, rather than an art movement.
This is not to say there is nothing to admire in the work, and indeed critics are raving about the show and its careful, considered, calm content (Adrian Searle positively gushes in the Grauniad). Yet I find it hard to separate this admiration from the notion that currently fashion and taste leans towards the idea of restriction and control. Such work is ideal for instilling a sense of order in our lives, as we marvel at the artist’s sheer levels of concentration where our own lacks; culturally we are at the polar opposite of, say, Victorian opulence, or even for representational art in general. It is also sufficiently non-offensive, non-characterful that its longevity and marketability is less likely to wax and wane.
As a generation addicted to instant-gratification and immediacy, it is clear how the sheer concentration and, yes, obsession, of carefully drawing grids of varying sizes is an unusual and marvellous thing to us: Searle states: “Lines crossed the canvas like musical staves or like highways, petering out at the canvas’s edge (following a line to the edge of the painting can feel like arriving at a precipice). Sometimes you want to hold your breath as the lines sweep by”. To me, he suggests an earth shattering significance that says more about today’s taste and the degree of importance we now attach to monastic-like handiwork, than about the work itself. Being minimalism, it is a relatively empty vessel for the recipient to instil his own interpretation. In this way, is it a form of non-art?
firstname.lastname@example.org Photo: P C Robinson