Dr. Richard Tobin, executive director of the Harwood Museum of Art, has announced that the Daniel W. Dietrich II Foundation has made a gift of a major painting by Agnes Martin.
The painting is titled “Tundra,” 72 by 72 inches, acrylic and graphite on canvas, dating to 1967. It was accepted for accession into the museum’s permanent collection for permanent display, Tobin said in a press release. “Conveyed through a grant to the University of New Mexico Foundation, Incorporated for the benefit of the Museum, ‘Tundra’ was delivered to the museum on April 26th. This year marks the 50th anniversary of ‘Tundra,’ the last painting done by Agnes Martin before she left New York in 1967 and returned to New Mexico,” the release states.
A special presentation for “Tundra” is planned by Tobin at the museum members’ preview event of the Harwood’s latest exhibition, which is titled “The Errant Eye: Portraits in a Landscape,” on June 1 at the museum. The exhibit will open to the public June 3.
The late Daniel W. Dietrich II, of Chester County, Pennsylvania, was a philanthropist whose charitable donations reflected his lifelong involvement in the arts and longtime support of many cultural institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania Institute of Contemporary Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A well-known collector of modern and contemporary art, Dietrich was Martin’s personal friend and early patron.
“Tundra” has a history with the museum that dates back to its groundbreaking centennial exhibition in 2012, “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid,” organized by then-curator Jina Brenneman, co-curator Tiffany Bell and registrar Betsy Bowen, Tobin related. The “Before the Grid” catalog features an essay by Tobin, titled “The Last Painting,” which is a reference to both “Tundra,” the last painting Martin did at Coenties Slip before leaving New York in 1967, and to the “Black Painting” series by Ad Reinhardt, Martin’s mentor and friend.
The essay features a discussion that notes the striking congruence in means and effect between Reinhardt’s black paintings and Martin’s classic grid canvases of the Coenties Slip years, from about 1961-67. Tobin writes, “[Martin’s] grid paintings, … especially from 1964 to 1967, … argue for a far more complex, contested, uneasy peace when viewed against the accounts of her by colleagues at Coenties Slip from this period as well as against her own account in ‘The Untroubled Mind,’ reflecting a personal and spiritual struggle that would come to a head in 1967 with her abandonment of her career and self-imposed exile within a week of Reinhardt’s death. A case in point is ‘Tundra,’ Martin’s last painting before she left Coenties Slip and New York at that time. Its ‘theme’ and its visual impact, as described by Linville, would support the accounts of the artist’s bouts with anguish.”
Tobin said “Tundra’s” importance as a testament to Martin’s self-described “outer darkness” during this period was confirmed by his research of Martin’s correspondence with collector and friend Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., located in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, likely written in 1968 during her travels while “staying unsettled.” Among the correspondence available, Tobin said he discovered a handwritten note that referred to her last painting: “Dear Sam: So you now have ‘Tundra’ and ‘The Lake.’ I am very glad. I think my paintings will be around quite a while as I perceive now that they were all conceived in purest melancholy” (Agnes Martin, Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr. correspondence, circa 1968-73).
Efforts to locate “Tundra” in the months following the exhibition proved fruitless, Tobin states. Now, five years after “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid,” the search for “Tundra” has ended with the foundation’s gift, which was accompanied by a note stating that Dietrich was believed to have acquired “Tundra” in or around 1973 from Wagstaff.
The Harwood is “enormously enriched by accepting ‘Tundra’ into its permanent collection,” the Harwood press release states. “This major work by Agnes Martin assures the museum’s place as a premier art destination. Viewers will experience firsthand the effects described so movingly by Kasha Linville in 1971.”
Linville writes that “Tundra’s” surface is “divided by three lines into six tall rectangles … the surface is closed. It suggests the heavy, white-laden blankness of a snow sky. The lines that divide it are dominant at close range, but something very peculiar happens as you move back. … Because the horizontally brushed grayish wash on the surface stops near but not [flush] against the lines, they seem to have halos around them. These halos actually swallow the lines at middle distance, leaving only their white ghosts. Even the ghosts disappear eventually,” according to Artforum, June 9, 1971.
“Tundra” will complement the series of Martin’s seven acrylic paintings from 1992-93 donated to the museum by the artist in 1995 and now on permanent display in the octagonal Agnes Martin Gallery built in 1997 to house them and whose design evokes the Mark Rothko Chapel in Houston. Tobin adds that “Tundra” now becomes “a poignant testament to the peace that Agnes Martin found with her return after 1967 to Northern New Mexico and eventually back to Taos, a fragile peace in which she ‘untroubled her mind at last and attained the imperfect grace of redemption.’”
“The Errant Eye: Portraits in a Landscape” is an exhibition that incorporates the “wide range of portraits from the Harwood collection [that] explores the portrait’s place in Taos arts, its role as an art form, and its power to capture the human condition,” an announcement states.
The Harwood Museum of Art is located at 238 Ledoux St. in Taos. For more information, call (575) 758-9826 or visit harwoodmuseum.org.