Best known for her meditative paintings and drawings of grids in pale hues, Canadian-American Agnes Martin's work is widely considered a mainstay of Western modern art.Read More
Martin was born to a homesteading family in Macklin, Saskatchewan, in 1912. Scholars have speculated about how the austere landscape—with its vast, stretching plains and open skies—may have affected her later work. While little is known of her early relationship with art, in her twenties, Martin worked as a teacher in one-room schoolhouses in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1941, Martin moved to New York City to study fine arts at Teachers College, Columbia University. Early studies from this era, such as the moody, mountainous watercolour landscape Untitled (1946), showed an academic exploration of traditional materials and techniques.
For several years, Martin lived between New York City and Taos in New Mexico, making abstract paintings such as Mid Winter (1954), which depicts rounded shapes in ivories, greys, and browns that suggest mud beneath melting snow.
Noting her talent, Martin's dealer Betty Parsons encouraged the artist to settle in New York City in 1957. It was there, within a community of artists in Lower Manhattan, that Martin's work drastically changed. Shapes lost their round edges, and she began to add triangles and squares to paintings such as Harbor Number 1 (1957).
Agnes Martin's signature meditative abstractions feature grids and geometric shapes hand drawn on pale painted surfaces. While she is often compared to mid-20th-century Minimalist painters, Martin identified more with Abstract Expressionism in its singular concern with evoking effect.
The grid for which Martin would become famous emerged in the 1960s. Using a pencil, rulers, tape, and string, and by scratching into paint and gesso on square canvases, Martin created visual plains of repetition that produced a meditative effect exemplary in works such as Red Bird (1964), which features a barely-there red grid overlaid atop a buttery yellow ground. Given their pale tones, Martin works such as this are notoriously difficult to photograph.
While to Martin, grids conveyed innocence and serenity, she was adamant about rejecting further representation in her work. In an interview, she explained: 'My paintings are about merging, about formlessness ... A world without objects, without interruption.' While some works have simple titles, such as Stone (1964), Martin's preference, especially earlier on, was that her works remain unnamed, as she believed the painting, not the language surrounding it, should hold the experience.
Martin's inspiration for paintings came to her in visions, from which she drew postage stamp-sized versions before making painstaking calculations to scale them up to 72x72-inch canvases. Due to their all-over, sublime effect, Martin's paintings have often been described as having spiritual or meditative qualities. Indeed, like many American artists in the 1960s, Martin was influenced by Taoist and Zen Buddhist teachings.
Despite Martin's network with other influential artists of the time, including Bruce Nauman, Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Indiana, and romantic relationships with artist Lenore Tawney and Greek sculptor Chryssa, her stay in New York would not last long.
In 1967, after a period of personal tumult (the artist was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as an adult), Martin packed up and returned to Taos, where she built a small dwelling and studio on a remote piece of land. After a long hiatus from painting, Martin resumed in the mid-1970s with printmaking, drawing, and a brief exploration of film.
Taking leave from the graphite grid that defined her New York paintings, these later works presented bolder geometric compositions such as the thick pink vertical bars of Untitled Number 5 (1975) and the horizontal bars of With My Back to the World (1997). They are also often characterised by the warm pastel palette of Martin's new arid desert surroundings.
Notably, towards the end of her life, stark geometric shapes reappeared in her works. Homage to Life (2003) features, a stark black trapezoid shape looming out of a tense putty grey wash.
Despite her distance from the epicentre of New York, Martin's work gained increasing recognition over the years. She died in 2004 at the age of 92 in Taos.
Agnes Martin has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions and group exhibitions internationally.
Agnes Martin solo exhibitions include: Agnes Martin: The Distillation of Color, Pace Gallery, New York (2021); Agnes Martin: The Untroubled Mind, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, (2018); Agnes Martin, Tate Modern, London (2015); Agnes Martin: The New York–Taos Connection (1947–1957), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (2013); In Honor of Agnes Martin's Centenary, Inverleith House, Edinburgh, (2012); Artist Rooms: Agnes Martin, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (2009); Agnes Martin, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, November 6, (1992); and Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1957–1975, Hayward Gallery London (1977).
Agnes Martin group exhibitions include: From Gesture to Form, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (2019); Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, The MoMA, New York (2017); American Legends: From Calder to O'Keeffe, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2012); P_ostwar Directions: Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism_, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2006); Minimalism, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, (2001); Du trait à la ligne, Cenre Pompidou, Paris (1995); Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism in America, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1989); and Order and Experience: American Minimal Art, Serpentine Gallery, London (1975).
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Quietude might be better suited than music for the art of Agnes Martin, but as the post-punks used to say: silence is a rhythm too. Certainly it is in the realm of Martin’s lines and grids, where hushed demarcations of empty space suggest so much, and in the context of her decades-long career, which was guided by a muted devotion to...Read More