Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin is considered to be one of the most evocative modern painters of her time, not because she consciously took interest in accessing the emotions of one viewing her work, but because it was done almost entirely without suggestion, with the foundation being the power of simplicity. Inciting the abstract emotion that she believed lives in all of us, her paintings were intended as a catalyst to conjure the feeling one might have upon being graced with an emotion-inspiring sight or environment, mainly dealing with the peacefulness of landscape and nature.

Martin moved to the United States, from Canada, in the 1930s. After spending time at Western Washington University, she moved to New York in 1941, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Teachers College at Columbia University, where she later returned to complete her Master of Fine Arts degree. She started making art in the early 1940s, living in New York, and intermittently in New Mexico, where she studied at University of New Mexico, while also teaching there.

In the early 1950s, Martin began working with the symbolic and biomorphic forms also used by the then growing Abstract Expressionist movement, but by the end of this decade, she had developed her own brand of geometric abstraction, without the style-defining sense of gesture or action.

At the suggestion of famous art dealer Betty Parsons, Martin returned to New York in 1957, and Parsons offered Martin her first one-woman exhibition in 1958. Prior to this, Martin was teaching and working various jobs to support herself, as she had not seriously explored the idea of her selling her work.

Martin’s style is defined by an emphasis upon line, grids, and fields of very subtle coloration. When she did employ color, which was, for the most part, faint, and later in her career, the impression is that the color is floating from the canvas, a carefully executed, but ethereal effect.

In the 1966 exhibition Systemic Painting, at the Guggenheim Museum, Martin’s grids were celebrated as examples of Minimalism, and hung among the work of artists including Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, and Donald Judd, making her name relevant to the development of this movement. However, Martin chose to retain small flaws, and unmistakable traces of the artist’s hand; she shied away from intellectualism, favoring the personal and spiritual. To evoke abstract emotion in the viewer; Martin makes a point to avoid direct allusion or suggestion via imagery. Additionally, Martin’s work often reflects an interest in Eastern philosophy, especially Taoist. Because of this added spiritual dimension, one that became more dominant in the late 1960s, she preferred her style be identified as Abstract Expressionism, as the transcendence and meditative quality is often absent from typically unpermissive Minimalism.

In 1967, when she lost her studio, Martin left New York for New Mexico, and did not paint for many years, instead focusing on writing. However, in 1974, she introduced a new group of paintings, and from 1975, exhibited regularly.

Martin’s work has been the subject of more than 80 solo shows, and several important retrospectives, including the renowned survey, Agnes Martin, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, which later travelled extensively.

Agnes Martin died in 2004, in New Mexico, where she spent her final years living and continuing to make art. The Agnes Martin estate is represented by Pace Gallery, New York.

Shown, from top, clockwise: “Mountain,” 1960; “The Sea,” 2003 “Aspiration,” 1960; Agnes Martin in her studio, 1955, by Mildred Tolbert.

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