The Artwork of Agnes Martin
Born in March of 1912 at the town of Macklin located in Saskatchwan, Agnes Bernice Martin was a Canadian-American abstract painter known for her minimalist and abstract expressionist style. Martin’s patterned work, both delicate and awe inspiring, established a connection between the arts of writing and painting.
One of four children born to Scottish Presbyterian farmers, Agnes Martin spent her formative years in Vancouver before relocating to the state of Washington in 1931 to assist her pregnant sister. She studied at the College of Education of Western Washington University and later received her Bachelor of Arts in 1942 from the Teacher College of New York’s Columbia University. During her studies, Martin was exposed to the artwork of sculptor and painter Joan Miró and abstract expressionist painters Adolph Gottlieb and Arshile Gorky. Inspired by their work, she began to take studio classes and seriously work towards a career as an artist.
In 1947, Martin attended the Summer Field School of the University of New Mexico in Taos and, through lectures by Zen Buddhist scholar Daisetsu Teltaro Suzuki, became interested in Asian disciplines and ethics as a tool to manage her journey in life. Following her graduation, Martin enrolled at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where she taught art classes. She resumed her studies at Columbia University and in 1952 earned her Master of Fine Arts in Modern Art.
At the invitation of gallery owner Betty Parsons, Agnes Martin settled in New York City for a period of ten years beginning in 1957. She lived in a loft within the Coenties Slip area, a historic section of nineteenth-century buildings surrounded by the city’s financial district. Originally an area with an artificial inlet for loading and unloading cargo ships, Coenties Slip became both home and studio space for ground breaking artists from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. The area also served as a haven for the queer community in the 1960s. Among Martin’s friends and neighbors were Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Adolph Reinhardt, and Lenore Tawney, for whom she wrote an essay included in the brochure of Tawney’s first solo exhibition.
Although not documented until 1962, Martin was known to have schizophrenia, the struggle of which was largely a private and individual affair. She was frequently hospitalized to control its symptoms among which were aural hallucinations and states of catatonia. Martin was aided by her friends from the Coenties Slip who enlisted the support of a respected psychiatrist who was both friend and art collector. The full impact of this illness on her life is unknown.
In 1967, Agnes Martin abandoned the art world and her life in New York. After a period of travel in Canada and the western United States, she settled in Mesa Portales, New Mexico in 1968 where she rented a fifty-acre property until 1977. On this property, Martin built several adobe brick structures herself. She did not paint any works during the period from 1968 to 1971 and distanced herself from social events and the public eye. In 1973, Martin returned to art with the creation of thirty serigraphs for a portfolio entitled “On a Clear Day”.
An admirer of Mark Rothko’s work, Martin simplified her own work to its basic elements, a process to encourage a perception of perfection and emphasize the painting’s transcendental quality. Her work’s signature style focused on grids, lines and fields of subtle color. In the early 1960s, Martin created square 182cm canvases using only black, white and brown; these were covered with dense, minute and lightly defined graphite grids. Her paintings, while minimalist in form, differed from other minimalist works as her work retained small flaws and noticeable traces of the artist’s hand. Martin’s paintings and her writings both reflected her interest in Eastern philosophy, an aspect which became increasingly more dominant after 1967.
In 1974, Agnes Martin returned to painting with 30cm square and 182cm square canvases that represented a new exploration characterized by vertical and horizontal lines in a palette of yellows, pinks and blues. These were exhibited in 1975 at her first show at New York’s prestigious Pace Gallery. During her time in Taos, Martin continued her use of light pastel washes on the grids and bands of her paintings but reduced the scale of her work to a square of 152cm. She also modified the grid structure she had been using since the late 1950s; the pencil lines were now being drawn intuitively without a ruler.
In 1976, Martin made her only completed film, “Gabriel”, a seventy-eight minute silent film, except for seven moments at which excerpts from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” occur for two or three minutes. Unscripted, the film was shot with a handheld camera and presented the story of a young boy who wanders in the natural landscape of rural New Mexico. Martin’s goal was to make a film about happiness and innocence; an angel’s name, representing innocence, was used for the title of the film.
In 1978, Agnes Martin left her Portales home and moved to Galisteo, near Santa Fe. Her broad-striped paintings became more luminous, a result derived from the application of diluted acrylic color over a ground of multiple layers of white pigment. Martin’s work evolved again in the 1990s; the early symmetric bands of color in her paintings began to be composed of varying widths. In 1991, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum hosted a retrospective of Martin’s work, which was followed in the next year by a retrospective held at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
Following the Whitney show, Martin moved to Taos, New Mexico where she lived and worked for the remainder of her life. She introduced a new palette of color in her work which included a spectrum of greens and saturated orange. In her very last paintings, Martin reintroduced the geometric elements from her 1950s work; she placed dark triangles and rectangles against gray grounds but kept the graphite lines that were a integral part of all her work. Agnes Martin passed away in Taos, New Mexico at the age of ninety-two in December of 2004.
Agnes Martin was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 1998 and was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2004. In 1994, the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos renovated its Pueblo-Revival building and dedicated a wing to Martin’s work. Since her first solo exhibition in 1958, Martin participated in many international exhibitions including three Venice Biennales, two Whitney Biennials and the 1972 Documenta in Kassel, Germany. In 2016, the same year the Guggenheim Museum held a retrospective of her work, Agnes Martin’s 1965 graphite and oil on canvas “Orange Grove” sold at auction for $13.7 million dollars.
Notes: Despite sharing several meaningful and long-term relationships in Oregon, New Mexico, and New York City, Agnes Martin never specifically acknowledged her sexuality in interviews or writings during her life. Martin kept her sexuality hidden, often even from close acquaintances.
An article on Agnes Martin written by William Peterson for the November 2013 “New Mexico Mercury” can be found at: http://newmexicomercury.com/blog/comments/some_late_thoughts_on_the_early_work_of_agnes_martin
An extensive biography of Agnes Martin, written by Christopher Régimbal and entitled “Agnes Martin: Life and Work”, can be found at the Art Canada Institute site located at: https://www.aci-iac.ca/art-books/agnes-martin/
Top Insert Image: Dorothy Alexander, “Agnes Martin”, 1978, Gelatin Silver Print, Art Canada Institute, Toronto
Second Insert Image: Agnes Martin, “Self Portrait”, circa 1947, Encaustic on Canvas, 66 x 49.5 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Agnes Martin, “With My Back to the World”, 1997, 152.4 x 152.4 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fourth Insert Image: Agnes Martin, “Portrait of Daphne Vaughn”, 1947, Oil on Canvas, 50.8 x 40.6 cm, Private Collection
Fifth Insert Image: Agnes Martin, “Summer”, 1965, Watercolor, Ink and Gouache on Paper, 22 x 23.5 cm, Private Collection of Patricia Lewy, New York
Bottom Insert Image: Gianfranco Gorgoni, “Agnes Martin in Cuba, New Mexico”, 1974, Detail, Gelatin Silver Print, Art Canada Institute, Toronto