Agnes and the Spider Woman
Agnes Martin / Navajo Blankets at Pace Gallery
As with any two-person show, the immediate temptation upon walking in to Agnes Martin / Navajo Blankets is to compare and contrast. As with many temptations there is the risk of downfall, for reassessing an ancient art form (that is, weaving) in the context of a relatively recent art movement (Minimalism, or something like it) will ultimately prove fruitless. Luckily, this is a pitfall into which Pace’s current exhibition does not fall (despite its trendy use of the collaborative “/” as if the two were co-producing a line of design-conscious home furnishings. Better than “Agnes Martin x Navajo Blankets,” I suppose).
To avoid a controversy similar to that of MoMA’s 1984 “Primitivism” show, the press release is careful to acknowledge that Agnes Martin was not directly referencing these weavings, nor did she ever mention them as inspiration. She wasn’t a collector of objects, and probably did not have them around her in her home in Taos, New Mexico. (In fact, her iconic grids and lines were developed when she was living in the New York art colony on Coenties Slip.) The concept for this show is that the landscape of New Mexico is the common denominator and that these works of art are brought together by the spiritual nature of their creative environment. By immersing ourselves in the desert of New Mexico, rather than the details of these artists’ lives, we are set up to appreciate each grouping as independent but resonant bodies of work.
The fact that neither set of work is overshadowed by the other is an achievement that lies less in what Pace has done in its installation of them and more in what Pace has done by conceiving of the show in the first place. That is to say, the beauty and power of these objects, whether painting or weaving, is self-contained. The installation reinforces this idea, as it is immediately clear upon entering Pace’s 24th street location that this show is as much about the blankets as it is about the canvases, as both are equally prominent and equally represented in quantity.
If thematic comparison is verboten here, visual resonances are encouraged. Seeing these works side by side allows the slight variations in the color of Martin’s watery surfaces, which create a sort of luminescence, to bring out the subtle mottling of the natural fibers in the weavings, revealing their own painterliness. The insistent geometry of Martin’s stripes and grids allow us to see that the Navajo (also called Diné) textiles are arranged in ways much less rigid–– such as the rich chevron pattern that emerges in the browns and blacks of one of the blankets. The blankets, in turn, pull Martin’s work away from the classification of minimalism into which they are often grouped and pull them into a non-representational space that is much warmer than the detachment which characterizes more mainstream Minimalism.
Of course, by inviting comparison between two fairly disparate bodies of work, it is easy to lose something in translation. Easiest, I think, is to conflate the two spiritualities that these works conjure, a Buddhist spiritualism invested in the idea of “nothingness” in the case of Martin, and the Navajo worship of Na’ashjé’ii Asdzáá, or Spider Woman, who wove the universe and taught spinning and weaving to the early Navajo. (Creation myths are in some ways the opposite of the evocations of Martin’s grid, which deconstruct the material world.) A little investigation, however, solves this problem.
I do have some criticism, however, which has to do with an assertion brought up in the press release, in which Pace President and CEO Marc Glimcher writes, “what this exhibition asserts so clearly is the idea that the meditative practice of art making has been integral to women artists throughout history.”
I must object to this statement, as it seems more reductive than the openness of the exhibition’s ethos implies– what need is there to draw a line between the interests of women artists across time? What in these works is uniquely female when it comes to “meditative practice”? Surely Glimcher knows that there are male weavers throughout the world making equally artful textiles and that Martin was not alone in the 1960s art world in her interest in Buddhism (John Cage being, perhaps, the most dedicated to the cross cultural exchange). This is the type of one-to-one comparison that quashes nuance and which this exhibition was otherwise so close to avoiding. Luckily, contrary to Mr. Glimcher’s insistence, this parallel would never be intuited from the way the show has been installed. The quiet dedication of domestic womanliness in these objects is replaced (if it ever even existed) by the evocations and implications of these works as inhabiting a realm above the distinctions of gender.
Agnes Martin / Navajo Blankets
537 W 24th St
Until December 21