Amid the excited talk about the Haub Western Art Wing construction at the Tacoma Art Museum, two very contrasting exhibits have taken up residence in the galleries from two very different artists. These artists are women who could geographically be called Western but in fact think visually beyond this world. They are women who live at opposite ends of both the color and expression spectrums, and they took completely different paths to self-confidence as artists.
The women are Camille Patha and Agnes Martin, and by mounting a Patha retrospective and a look at Martin’s early, pre-grid work, TAM has again struck an intelligent, out-of-the-frame note.
For those who know Martin’s famous minimalist grids and lines, “Agnes Martin: The New York-Taos connection” will be a big surprise. Martin, who died in 2004, actively tried to get rid of her early, pre-grid work, and this traveling exhibit is the result of some detective work by curators who hunted down letters and films, even finding early works in a school closet in Taos, N.M., where Martin taught art before moving to New York in the late 1950s. The show covers the decade just before that move, when Martin was still experimenting and finding her voice.
There are a couple of landscapes: sparse New Mexico hillsides with broad geometric planes and chunky color fields. There are some portraits: women with narrow Gauguin eyes and broad forms in a turquoise/pink palette. The blending is skillful, the strokes well-placed, but you get the feeling that they’re painted by someone who’s just following instructions without much conviction. By 1949, Martin had moved from watercolor to oils, from figurative curves to more abstract squares or symbols, and by 1952 to biomorphic forms. But they’re all still landscapes, whether literal (a beach, a night sky) or metaphorically floating, Dalilike, in a wash of cloudy color. And you still get the feeling that Martin was simply going through the motions.
Perhaps this is just hindsight: After all, the excerpt (screened in the gallery) from the 2003 documentary “With My Back to the World” shows an 86-year-old Martin explaining how for 20 years she hated her work and would burn it all every year on a bonfire.
Whatever the reality, it’s obvious when you reach the end of the gallery that finally Martin was discovering her artistic truth. The 1954 “Mid-Winter” is still organically shaped, but the amoebic forms hover in still, saturated grays, blacks and whites over a landscape reduced to horizontals and verticals. In a 1957 work, squares and rectangles float veiled in white – a restful, proto-grid.
And finally, in a semiseparated gallery at the end are two 6-foot-by-6-foot canvases from the mid-1980s when Martin was hitting her stride. The signature pale wash and horizontal lines – endlessly peaceful – are all the more haunting when you know that 20 years of restlessness came before.
Patha couldn’t be more different. Painting during the same half-century as Martin’s mature work (“A Punch of Color” covers 1960 through today), the West Seattle artist has taken a completely different visual and emotional journey, expressing herself in vibrant canvases that go from tentative to full-on surrealist to abstract expressionist and, recently, a linear combination of what came before. The works are also enormous,and are flanked by four divider walls in lime, plum, magenta and tangerine. Nothing is subtle or restful here. The works sing of imagination, disorder and sheer living, with palettes shimmering from pastel to iridescent and texture leaping out of frames like spider webs or spilled blood.
Get beyond the splashy color, though, and what’s most fascinating are Patha’s worlds. Whether a blurry tangle like the recent “Lucent Thicket” and “Bordeaux Passage,” or the eerily spacious surrealism of checkerboard terrain and lunchbox landscapes, these worlds pull us in and make us think about how we see our own internal worlds. Patha’s not shy about showing us herself – a hungry-eyed egret inside a box of Martian landscapes, or a transparent silhouette ripe with dangling cherries – or how she sees her journey through life – a collage of geometrics flowing in chirpy gelato colors.
Organized by Tacoma Art Museum, “A Punch of Color” is a brilliant counterpart to the muted Agnes Martin backstory: two very different women making two very different journeys through art.
New Tacoma art Museum exhibits
What: “A Punch of Color: 50 years of Painting by Camille Patha” and “Agnes Martin: The New York-Taos connection”
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
When: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.- 8 p.m. third Thursdays through April 20 (Martin) and May 25 (Patha)
Cost: $10 adults; $8 seniors, students, military; $25 family; free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays
Catch these presentations: “Westering America: Frontier Thinking” by Andrew J. Walker of Amon Carter Museum, 3 p.m. Friday, free with admission; “Feminism in Northwest Art” by Alison Maurer, 2 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $15.
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.orgRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568