The seminal dancer/choreographer Martha Graham was 26 years old when the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was passed by Congress. The amendment’s centennial this year is being celebrated in many forms, one being The Eve Project. For it, nineteen of Graham's iconic poses were extracted from her work by the ongoing Martha Graham Dance Company from Graham’s photographed repertoire, highlighting the archetypal female power her dance vocabulary modernized. These nineteen poses, semaphores for the power of human expression, have been “offered to anyone who choses to own them – to learn, remember and make them their own” by the Company.
Artist Margaret Garrett accepted this profound visual challenge, and it's hard to imagine a better person to rise to the occasion. Garrett began her creative career as a dancer, performing with the Pennsylvania and Cleveland Ballet companies, among others. For this exhibition, she has worked in not one but three mediums while digesting the complexity of The Eve Project. The power of contemporary women comes through vividly in Garrett's interpretations, which honor the significance of Graham’s empowerment of women in the arts, the impact of her company, and its storied past.
Not surprisingly, Garrett’s artwork has had its roots in movement, and her sensibility and even style might be called proprioceptive. From the motion of the brush in her hand, her mark-making traces the body’s trajectory through time and across space, connecting and capturing the rest of her body through these gestures. Although her paintings, drawings, and more recently prints and videos have evinced this for years, it is a kind of culmination to see it realized in this show, which is the most declarative of her dance background, while remaining transformative, to date.
For this show, Garrett has created an extraordinary video, a set of collages that represent the poses individually, and a suite of beautiful painted collages. She has also produced a set of woodblock and Chine collé prints, “19 Poses”. In this complex meditative interchange, the conversation between Graham, Garrett's own dance background, her mediums and her individuality accumulate in a rich and generous experience for the viewer.
For the video, titled “19”, Garrett learned the 19 extracted poses for The Eve Project, filmed herself performing them against a white background, and assembled them in a grid of powerful singularity and interaction, creating a mesmerizing flow of movement. Seen as individual panes, they're an alphabet of womanly power inspired by Graham's expressive intent. Interpreted by Garrett, they become an experience replete with an interchange of strength, fluidity, power, and a humor all her own.
The “19 Collages”, all oxblood red on naples yellow, are so evocative and specific there is no question that they are interpreting dance, and "talk" to each other in a way that I imagine Graham would have particularly appreciated. They have become a new extraction from the poses, and gather momentum together as their own kind of body language in forms of tension and release. Experiencing them echoes the way Graham's dancers can be freighted with their own stolid corporality one moment and then be suddenly released like a falling ribbon the next. In them you see impatience, shyness, aggression, speed, deliberation, and so much more, body language evoking classic modern dance in a new kind of timelessness. Another version of them is realized in “19 Poses”, a set of woodblock and Chine collé prints in which the “staging” of them in this medium creates a different sense of touch and realization.
The painted-and-cut paper “Improvisations 1-9” is a set of intelligent, graceful and restrained collages, feeding like the other work in the show from the poses but particularly transformed by the interplay of shapes-as-bodies within the paper’s painted atmosphere, which ignites the shapes. Most are pas de deux, in which the figurative elements are set free to touch, play, collide, and resist each other. The power they represent could be said to refer to female power, but fundamentally their expression of movement, sexuality, and eros itself is genderless, or at least fluid. Abstraction affords an expansiveness of interpretation which nevertheless remains true to human interaction.
Graham’s work can seem both datedly “modern” and archetypal from our 21st Century perspective, but Garrett’s reinterpretation liberates it from its origins. So while the work is time-specific in the celebration of the Centennial Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, in this exhibition we are gifted a timeless experience, true to Graham’s vision and Garrett's spirit.
-April Gornik, July 2020
Catalogue Essay by Dorothy Seiberling, Former Art Editor Life Magazine
For those of you who have a yen to circulate in outer space and tune into the shimmering wonders of nature and the universe, try Margaret Garrett’s paintings.
For more than a decade, Ms. Garrett has been working miracles in her studio, making visible on canvas and paper what might be called the dance of the universe, with its rhythms and eruptions of energy, immersed in an expansive and luminous space.
It is not surprising that Ms. Garrett has tuned into the magic of dance. From her childhood in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, she was a dedicated ballerina. At age 16, she was performing with the Pennsylvania Ballet and two years later became a soloist with the Cleveland Ballet. But by the ripe age of 21, she was “done with it.”
Though she continued to do stints in films and plays and choreographed for theatrical productions, she was increasingly drawn to art, studying painting privately with the artist Thorpe Feidt in New York, and drawing at the Art Students League. And from the beginning, her art expressed itself in abstract terms of line and color, like the gestures and emotions of dance.
As she explains it, “I see line as movement. Texture, form, the way that colors interact, are all different manifestations of motion and energy.”
But the vibrations and atmospheric colors of her paintings are also powerfully suggestive of forms and conditions of nature. And no wonder. The artist’s studio is surrounded by waving reeds and grasses, twisting trees and the gleaming sea and sky beyond. Though her imagery is removed from the specificity of such effects, the paintings often seem to clue into them. They glow and vibrate, and the sinuous lines are suggestive, much like the indecipherable yet expressive calligraphy of ancient Chinese paintings (which have in fact inspired Ms. Garrett).
From her tiny ink drawings on vellum to the five-foot oil paintings on canvas, Margaret Garrett has created her own wondrous universe of mystery and beauty.
– Dorothy Seiberling, April 2008
Catalogue essay for "MARGARET GARRETT , Tuning Fields", at Birnam Wood Galleries, NYC
To see Margaret Garrett’s work for the first time is to hear an orchestra in full measure or a choir in perfect pitch. Music inhabits her work, animating color, form and most importantly, those lyrical marks and brushstrokes. If there is real rhythm in painting it is here in these graceful compositions that seem to come alive with movement.
So it should come as no surprise that Ms. Garrett began her creative life as a dancer. Or that she is married to a composer. But her elegant translation of music-related creative impulse to visual imagery is more than just a deft extension of the creative life. Influence is not imagination and Garrett’s pictorial sensibility is filled with animation and refinement, potent with imagined energy. Her brushmarks are pure, like contrary notes in perfect syncopation.
Tuning Fields began with the artist’s realization that her draftsmanship—in reality, the draftsmanship of all artists is like a signature, a unique, individual characteristic. From this idea, came a sense that her new paintings should be controlled by the drawing, driven by the mark-making. It is the marks that dictate and dominate Margaret Garrett’s paintings. At once elegant yet powerful, they coalesce in rhythmic patterns across her compositions.
The brushmarks are visually complex but not studied. They appear extemporaneous but have the formal quality of language, in their earliest form even resembling a kind of calligraphy. As the body of work progressed, Garrett’s visual language increasingly found a charged energy, with contrasts in color and shape becoming more pronounced. The artist’s most intricate paintings are composed of marks with such strength they could be asemic writing, meaning forms or lettering that are not readily understandable words. But even if they are not words or text, the choreography and gesture of Margaret Garrett’s marks possess a sophistication that suggests language with a pure emotional meaning of its own.
But to intellectualize these paintings is perhaps to miss the point. They are pointedly beautiful. Garrett’s sense of movement is impeccable (that dancer’s grace is in her hand and her head.) Tuning Fields 172 might be called “Rhapsody in Red” with its undulating crimson background setting off turquoise, blue and white marks that seem to skip and sway.
The modestly-sized canvas Tuning Fields 293 is an intricate pattern of swirling brushwork, while the large-scale TF 290 ia a similar work of tightly coiled marks that recall Mark Tobey. Yet the patterns here are authentic, Garrett’s voice is original.
Tuning Fields 276 is orchestral, a large, lush tour de force in broad strokes of soft yellows, pale blues and occasional red set against a black background. The marks here are subtly layered but seem to be in constant movement. It is a painting with quiet force that commands attention the way an orchestra opening Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue might.
Margaret Garrett’s love of choreography has found a home in this series of wonderful paintings. Like notes in perfect counterpoint, improvisation and color and instinctive gesture have been integrated here in a visual language with deep rhythmic sensibility and remarkable allure.
-Patrick Dawson, January 2014