Pace Gallery pairs exceptional Agnes Martin works with blankets by masterful Navajo (Diné) weavers. The first exhibition of its kind, Agnes Martin / Navajo Blankets remains on view at Pace in Palo Alto until October 28, 2018. Featuring a selection of paintings created by Martin throughout her career, together with exceptional Navajo handwoven textiles from the 19th century, the exhibition illuminate parallels between these exquisitely-crafted and transcendent bodies of work.
Most of the woven works in the exhibition were created in the form of the “chief-style” blankets by Navajo women working on indigenous vertical looms in their homes. Developed beginning in the 1750s, this bold-banded style worn around the shoulders by both men and women became a popular object of trade to high-level members of other tribes, military officers, and travelers throughout the American West, Southwest, and Northern Plains. By the mid-19th century, the Navajo chief blanket was one of the most valued garments in the world. The design spectrum of chief blankets includes four inter-figured phases, defined by their increasingly elaborate banding, coloration, and placement of foreground motifs. The chief blankets in this exhibition span the full range from first through fourth phases plus unusual variants. They and several classic serapes, dresses, and mantas (shawls) represent exceptionally rare examples of each type, rivaling museum and private collections worldwide.
Beyond their value as trade items, classic Navajo textiles are celebrated for their ideal manifestations of harmony and balance as expressed in Navajo culture and philosophy. While the Navajo language has no singular term for “art,” the powerfully descriptive word “hózhó” refers to harmony and balance in both aesthetic and intrinsic forms, a state of being where the natural and the supernatural can coexist. This concept infuses Navajo blanket-weaving as well as Navajo religious origin stories. These narratives relate that Na’ashjeii Asdzaa, Spider Woman, taught spinning and weaving to the earliest Navajo people to contribute to their well-being. A Holy Person and key figure in the Navajo pantheon, Spider Woman is revered as the first Navajo weaver and a source of hózhó. The luminous Navajo blankets on exhibit embody a stately yet playful sense of harmony and balance, through the light and depth expressed within each broad band derived from natural sheep’s colors and through the rich red and indigo-dyed blue foreground elements that seem to float atop the atmospheric backgrounds.
While Martin took no direct inspiration from the aesthetics of Navajo weaving in her approach to painting, she spent much of her life in New Mexico, and the region’s cultural history and artistic production suffused her experience. Using a limited color palette and a geometric vocabulary, her works are inscribed with lines, grids, or simple shapes that hover over subtle grounds of color. Maximizing the strength of pure abstraction, she explored space, metaphysics, and internal emotional states throughout her practice. As exemplified by Martin’s paintings on view in the exhibition, a profound reverence for the transcendent power of balance thrives within her work. By placing these two bodies of work in dialogue with one another for the first time, the exhibition encourages the discovery of their compelling resonances and invites new appreciation for their respective emotional impact and contributions to our shared visual culture.