Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin, 'Summer' (1964)

Agnes Martins, Summer (1964)

The spare, square canvases of Agnes Martin (1912-2004) have had a steady, respected presence on the global art scene for half a century, but they still have not quite found their proper place. Once Martin began to develop her signature style in New York in the 1960s, she associated with her Abstract Expressionist peers, but her work usually does not get featured in surveys of that movement. Her simple, right-angled geometries, which can seem blank or impenetrable, often cause people to miscast her as a Minimalist,  or dismiss her as boring.

But a patient, inquisitive gaze can reveal Martin's sotto voce gravity, underlying humor and formal nuances—her ways of transforming technique into emotional potency. Even before the artist produced her first meticulously penciled grids, her lines quivered with casual sensitivity. Starting over in the 1970s, following a seven-year hiatus during which she left New York, traveled by camper and retreated to New Mexico, Martin transformed her 6-by-6-foot lattices into spacious bands of pale color, downsizing to 5-by-5-foot canvases only when she could no longer lift the larger paintings by herself.

Martin's intense desire for solitude, yielding a hiddenness that subtly animates her paintings, compelled her to sidestep the mainstream and thus facilitate her own marginalization. She spent most of the rest of her life in (or near) small New Mexico towns, strictly limiting any contact that might interfere with her work. So despite multiple museum retrospectives and a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 1997 Venice Biennale, her contribution to 20th-century art is celebrated most enthusiastically among isolated clusters of devotees. The past 20 years have barely changed the accuracy of Benita Eisler's 1993 characterization of the artist: Agnes Martin is still "probably the most famous unknown artist in America."


[Karen Schiff, Slow Reveal, 2013]

Martin did not always paint in pastel colors, nor were her titles always so celebratory. She trained in portraiture, landscape, and watercolor at the University of New Mexico and Columbia University Teachers College. Gradually, she extended into allegorical and biomorphic abstractions, and New York gallerist Betty Parsons found the latter so strong that she bought enough to finance Martin’s move from Taos, New Mexico, to New York, in 1957. Her career solidified over the next decade. She lived in a community of artists between the skyscrapers and the shoreline of lower Manhattan. In addition to drawings and paintings, she created assemblages with patterns of nails and other local materials. She began working in two consistent sizes – twelve inches square and 72 inches square – and her art became progressively reduced in its abstraction. First, paintings of shapes with crisp contours; then, all-over fields of ruled horizontal and vertical lines.


Martin claimed that her breakthrough occurred when she was thinking about trees and about “innocence,” one of the joyful “subtle feelings” she sought to concretize in her work. Her studio practice involved waiting, trying to become calm; when a grid came into her mind’s eye, she created the six-by- six-foot The Tree, 1964. The composition features rectangles of ruled pencil lines in addition to paint. It “satisfied” her because it evoked the innocence of trees, yet did not resemble anything. This aesthetic of ruled rectangles on a square canvas became the first phase of her mature work. Many of her grid paintings from the mid-1960s have nature-based titles, though a perennial favorite is Untitled.


[Karen Schiff, On the Subtle Joy of Agnes Martin, 2015]


Though she used a ruler (or string, early on), and sometimes masking tape to create a clear edge in paint, the straight lines register the vibrations and agitations of the artist’s hand and inevitable divots in her attention. These rough-around-the-edges effects draw upon years of building houses, installing plumbing, splitting logs, fixing cars, gardening, swimming, and sailing: her touch is precise without being fussy.


These are subtle joys – founded in basic sensory perceptions, not dramatic feelings or narratives – and the evenness of Martin’s compositions makes the effects dependable. She imagined that people could view her paintings for ten minutes upon waking up each morning, to begin the day buoyantly. To make this experience more widely available, she also created a feature-length film of a boy hiking to the sea, Gabriel, 1976. 


[Karen Schiff, On the Subtle Joy of Agnes Martin, 2015]

Despite the formal rigor of Martin’s practice, she was not striving for perfection—rather, influenced by Taoist and other eastern philosophies, she felt her art was a reflection of the patterns of nature. As a result, Martin titled many of her abstract works after natural phenomena, such as White Flower (1960) or Night Sea (1963). “Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this,” she once stated. “My paintings are about merging, about formlessness.” Born on March 22, 1912 in Macklin, Canada, she moved to New York to study art education at the Columbia University Teachers College in the 1940s. Later sharing a studio building with Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Lenore Tawney, and others in Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, she became absorbed in natural phenomena while also suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. She left the city for the relative isolation of New Mexico in 1968, living and working out of a self-made adobe homes for the remainder of her life. Martin died on December 16, 2004 in Taos, NM at the age of 92. A major retrospective exhibition was held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2016. Today, her works are held in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Tate Gallery in London, among others.