The Grid: Agnes Martin, Chuck Close, & Sol Lewitt
This class was all about Modern artists who use the concept of a grid in their work. These three artists were pivotal in the proliferation of the use of grids in the art world in the 1900’s.
Our first artist is Agnes Martin who was born in Saskatchewan in 1912. She grew up with a stern mother and was often alone as a child and learned to be self-reliant. She was a good swimmer and tried out for the Olympic team, and she studied to be a teacher. Martin was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a young adult. It wasn’t until 1941 that she visited New York City and began to study Fine Arts. For the next 15 years she went back and forth between fine arts schools in New York and New Mexico. Martin was a perfectionist and so there are few paintings of hers that survived this period of discovering herself as an artist. If a painting was not exactly the way she wanted it to be she would destroy it.
She worked in a studio in New York until 1967 when she renounced art, purchased a truck and a trailer, and disappeared. In 1968 she resurfaced at a gas station in Cube, New Mexico where she eventually built herself a home 20 miles away from the nearest high way, using bricks she made herself. It was in this remote space that she began making art again — the art that would place her at the forefront of the Modernist movement.
Martin’s art is purposefully formless and ambiguous. She did not want her art to be “read” as art usually is. The painting was its own thing, completely devoid of biographical elements from her own life, personal emotions, or ideas.
The longer you look, the more impressive their insistent neutrality becomes. Forget confessional art. This is withholding art, evading disclosure, declining to give itself away.
She was so opposed to critical readings of her work that she cancelled a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1980 because insisted on a catalogue. She wanted the paintings to speak for themselves to each individual person and not be “correctly” interpreted.
For the class we watched from 2:22–3:34 of this video which has a short story of Martin explaining how she interprets and portrays beauty in her paintings to a young child.
Her piece The Tree is seen as her first grid. She said of this piece:
when I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.
It is shockingly plain. Just penciled lines on a painted canvas. There is a slight variation in colors but the lines are completely even and perfectly straight. Though this was not the first grid she actually made it was perhaps the one she felt held most closely to the true form of a grid. Simple, geometric, and innocent.
Above are two more grid paintings with much more color, Friendship on the left from early in her artistic career, and With My Back to the World on the right from right at the end.
As a class we talked about how these paintings are supposed to be interpreted individually and there is not need to look at them and say “I see this…” or “this is what it is supposed to look like…” in fact, that wasn’t what Martin wanted at all. They are supposed to invoke moments of sublime feeling — pure emotion felt by each person solitarily. This can be hard to do — even with modern and contemporary art the titles of the work can lend themselves to what you are “supposed” to see in the painting but Martin didn’t require anything of her viewers except to connect emotionally.
For our activity we gave each student a large piece of off white construction paper, a pencil and ruler and some very watered down pastel paints to create their own grid painting. We kept all the colors very soft and muted — even the paper wasn’t completely white.
Because of our time constraints we had them make their grid and then paint but we would recommend, if you have the time, to paint it and then make the grid on top so it shows up better.
Our next artist is Chuck Close who was born in Washington state in 1940. Close grew up with many physical and learning disabilities including Dyslexia, which wasn’t well researched or understood when he was a child. He had a hard time in school and never had good grades. Because of a neuromuscular condition he couldn’t run or play sports and had to be kept home from school for long stretches of time. As part of our introduction to Close we watched the video below about where he explains how his childhood love of magic and getting big reactions from people led him to his love of art (we watched from 00:23- 2:26).
Close also has Prosopagnosia, or Face-Blindness, which means he cannot tell who someone is by looking at their face. This inspired him to make the photo-realistic grid-portraits he is known for.
If you look closely you can see that the face is made of a grid with each square containing a unique splotch of color in different shapes. Up close the squares look abstract or nonsensical, but when you back away you can see that it is a face. This is the magic he talks about in the interview above — looking up close is seeing how he does the trick, the grid is the explanation, but it doesn’t take away from the awe you feel at the artwork as a whole. Later in life Close became paralyzed from the neck down, though through therapy he has regained some movement in his hands and arms. He uses a wheelchair now and paints with a paintbrush tied to his wrist.
For our Chuck Close artwork we made a collaborative grid picture. To do this project you need graph paper, we used paper with 1 inch by 1 inch squares so it would be easier for the young students in our class to fill in the squares but if you want to make yours more detailed or challenging you can use smaller graph paper. We cut out 8 inch by 8 inch squares and formed them into a large square so there were 9 individual squares total. We taped them on a wall in a square formation and, using a projector, traced a shape onto them with pencil so at least a piece of the picture was on each square. Before we took the picture apart we labeled the backs so we knew how to reassemble it.
We used Keith Haring illustrations because they are simple, geometric, and use thick lines. A line drawing of some sort works best for this. You can draw it by hand but unless you have done a project like this before it will probably be easier to trace a projection.
Then we labelled each part either 1 or 2, 1 for the sections that were background, and 2 for the sections that were the actual picture. Then we assigned 1 as warm colors, and 2 as cool colors, and had bins of colored pencils divided up into warm and cool.
So, each student had their section of the picture and they would go square by square and color in the 1 areas warm colors however they wanted to, and the 2 sections cool colors. They could make patterns, they could color every 1 part the same color, they could make designs in the squares, whatever they wanted as long as they followed the warm/cool color pattern. Then we taped them up on the wall to reassemble the picture so the students could find out what it was.
The instructions for this project are complicated! Hopefully by looking at the pictures it makes a little more sense. Almost every kid understood what we wanted them to do, and for those who didn’t understand we would just outline the sections in warm and cool colors for them to color in to make it a little easier. The end result was incredible and they were so excited to see what it would come together to be.
Our last artist is Sol Lewitt who was born in Connecticut in 1928. He is a founder of Minimalist and Conceptual art and works in painting, drawing, and sculpting. For this class we focused on his works called Wall Drawings. Wall Drawings are sets of guidelines and simple diagrams for Lewitt’s two-dimensional works drawn directly on the wall. These guidelines could be carried out by anyone, often assistants or the gallery displaying it would paint it themselves, and because of this his work can continue to be made even after his death.
Each Wall Drawing ends up a little bit different because, as Lewitt said:
Each person draws a line differently and each person understands words differently.
This makes each piece completely unique based on who made it and the space it is in. We watched from 00:42–4:10 of this video to see the very specific process galleries go through to show a Sol Lewitt piece. Below you can see the finished product along with the instructions provided to create Wall Drawing #451.
Lewitt often uses grid-like, geometric instructions for the wall drawings that must be exactly and precisely interpreted by the gallery. Since Lewitt’s death any new Wall Drawings come through his estate so when a Gallery requests one of his pieces the estate will take the dimensions of their space and alter the instructions and diagrams to fit their particular wall structure.
For our Sol Lewitt artwork we took two different instructions from the actual Wall Drawings and had each student interpret what they thought it should look like on large pieces of paper we taped to the walls. The instructions we used were:
and this one, though we simplified it to: draw a grid, in each box place one line, horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. Diagonal lines must be green, vertical lines must be red, and horizontal lines must be blue.
we also did a group one using these instructions and based on this video:
There are many different instructions that can be used, some are extremely precise and difficult to understand but if you are working with older students they would be fun to try out and see the interpretations. These three examples are the easiest Wall Drawing instructions we have found.
Minimalist art can be hard for students to wrap their heads around because it is so simple and plain and restraint when it comes to adding color or shapes can be hard to learn. We tried to choose projects that would allow them to experience grids and minimalism without being too prescriptive of how creative they could be or how many colors they could use.