In a 1989 interview, Mark Stevens asked Agnes Martin how long she’d like a viewer to spend looking at one of her paintings. “Well, I’d like them to give it a minute,” she replied.
I thought of this exchange recently while at the Guggenheim Museum. On view is a grand retrospective of Martin’s work, organized by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell. It’s the last leg of a tour that began at London’s Tate Modern in 2015 and closes at the Guggenheim in January 2017. Also on view is Maurizio Cattelan’s America, his notorious (and functioning) gold toilet.
The line of visitors waiting to use this accommodation was long when I passed it, stretching all the way out to the sign that the museum had placed explaining that the approximate wait from this point was two hours. Two hours! This was clearly not the toilet to use in a case of urgent necessity. But it struck me to wonder, as I walked past that seemingly unmoving line, how many of these people would spend another two hours with Martin’s exhibition.
A minute isn’t much to ask for, you might think; and yet if you start to count the seconds as you stand in front of a painting, it’s longer than you’d imagine. I think Martin realized that, and so her proposition was more demanding than it sounds. While probably not very many people would give one of her paintings a minute, those who did would in fact end up giving it much more time than that. At its best—which is often—Martin’s work is hypnotic; its near-emptiness, if you give yourself over to it, seems to hush the hurly-burly of everyday life, the world that Wordsworth once observed was “too much with us; late and soon.” Two minutes in front of her work—or even 15—can have its rewards.
Unfortunately, the Guggenheim is an infelicitous place to see Martin’s paintings, for many reasons. The most obvious one is that the tilted plane of the museum’s floor makes it very hard to attain the point of equilibrium that Martin’s paintings, so ingrained with a feeling for horizontality and verticality, ask their viewers to find in themselves. Another is that the linearity of one’s path through the Guggenheim (so different from walking around the rectangular rooms of a museum like the Tate Modern) means that it’s almost impossible to look from any distance at one of her paintings for as much as a minute without someone else getting in the way. At the Tate, where I was lucky enough to also see the show, people seemed to understand that their fellow museumgoers were trying to have a one-on-one experience with the paintings, and they could easily accommodate this by walking around you rather than in front of you. Not so at the Guggenheim.