Desert meditations

Pace Gallery pairs paintings by Agnes Martin with Navajo weavings

Sometimes what inspires an artist can seem arcane or beyond comprehension. That is not the case in the current exhibition at Pace Gallery, where the cool, meditative paintings of Agnes Martin are paired with colorful 19th-century blankets created by Navajo women. The show, on view until Oct. 28, is a testament to how a common inspiration, in this case the landscape of New Mexico, can evoke simple yet evocative works of art in two contrasting media -- paintings and textiles -- that both complement and challenge each other.

"When you think of it, Navajo weavers were constantly looking at the landscape and so was Agnes Martin," Pace President Elizabeth Sullivan said. "It is such a beautiful connection and now the gallery is filled with these amazing women artists."

Sullivan explained that the genesis of the show occurred when Marc Glimcher, owner of the Pace Gallery enterprise, visited with an associate who had a collection of "first phase" Navajo blankets and saw the potential for displaying them along with the work of Martin. The nine blankets in the show reflect the characteristics (along with their rarity) that make them so valuable: tightly woven, simple designs made of the finest wool and colored with indigo dyes. Like many valuable artifacts from indigenous cultures, the blankets were originally intended for functionality; worn during the day for warmth and slept on at night.

Considering their age, the blankets are in fabulous condition. When Sullivan began to prepare for the exhibition, she was concerned about the effects of gallery lighting.

"The colors are so amazing and, luckily, indigo does not fade," she said. The blankets range in size (two are actually serapes, meant to be worn) but all make a strong, bold statement thanks to the horizontal bands of color that might conjure up visions of desert horizons. In the "Cahn First Phase Chief’s Blanket, Ute Style," dating back to the early 1800s, the brown stripes are reminiscent of the dry, dusty, desert floor intersecting in a sharp line of demarcation with the deep blue of a pristine, open sky. Several of the blankets, like the "Mahoney Poncho Serape," are more ornate, with intricately-woven chevrons and crosses depicted in contrasting earth tones.

Sullivan explained that the original idea was to have the blankets interspersed among Martin's paintings. "It became clear immediately that this was not going to work," she said. "They both need room to shine and not compete with each other." The installation is austere but effective as the viewer moves from the lobby gallery, where several blankets are hung, into the largest room that is filled with Martin's work. A third gallery, with more blankets, provides a sense of moving from Martin's vision, as a transplant to the desert Southwest, to that of the Native Americans whose ancestry is so rooted in the environment. Said Sullivan, "I love this exhibition because I want to encourage people to look and come up with their own connections."

The influence of the Southwest on the work of Agnes Martin has been well-documented in art history texts. An enigmatic figure who lived in near-seclusion for three decades, Agnes Martin had an aura of mystery about her. She shunned the spotlight and the mainstream art world (although she enjoyed a close friendship with Arne Glimcher, Marc's father, and was represented by Pace most of her life), preferring to paint prolifically and, occasionally, issuing forth written texts that were treated like sacred manifestos. Born in Canada in 1912, she attended graduate school in the 1950s at Columbia University. She was in New York during the waning years of the Abstract Expressionist movement and rubbed shoulders with Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly. She was particularly drawn to the reductive, pure approach of Mark Rothko and her early work consisted of biomorphic shapes in muted colors. She found gallery representation fairly easily and seemed on her way to a successful career. An episode of confusion in the street (later diagnosed as schizophrenia) caused her to leave the city and cease painting for almost seven years. For any other artist, such an action would probably have spelled doom but it only seemed to add to the mystique of Agnes Martin. She settled near Taos, N.M., built a house by herself and returned to painting.

The six paintings in this exhibition reflect Martin's New Mexico phase, in which she created work in series of acrylic paintings, mainly square in format, with horizontal bands of creamy, transcendent color. In "Blessings," sky-blue bands are offset by white, with a single, hand-drawn strip of orange in the center. Looking closely, the viewer can see evidence of the graphite used to create the lines. We can also see the slight imperfections, even while using a ruler, that result from a hand-drawn line. Just as with the blankets, the hand of the artist is visible, resulting in nuance and complexity that is not found in a machine-made object. Martin's colors, soft pastels of blue, orange and yellow are so calming, so Zen-like, that art historian Barbara Rose declared them to be "oases of quiet in a tumultuous, over-stimulated environment."

Rose wrote those words in her book, "American Painting," in 1986. The need for a quiet, contemplative interaction with art may be even greater today.

Freelance Writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

What: "Agnes Martin / Navajo Blanket."

Where: Pace Gallery, 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto.

When: Through Oct. 28.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to Pace Gallery.

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