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Martin, Agnes Bernice

Martin, Agnes Bernice

(b. 22 March 1912 in Maklin, Saskatchewan, Canada; d. 16 December 2004 in Taos, New Mexico), abstract expressionist artist who influenced many modern art movements, including hard-edge painting, conceptualism, and minimalism.

Martin was one of four children of a Scottish Presbyterian wheat farmer who died two years after Martin was born. The family moved to the home of Martin’s grandfather before settling in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1919. Martin’s mother supported the family by renovating old houses while Martin picked up odd jobs in mining and logging camps. Martin came to the United States in 1931, when she moved to Bellingham, Washington, to assist her pregnant sister. After graduating from Whatcom High School, Martin attended the Western Washington College of Education in Bellingham. Later teaching jobs proved difficult to obtain during the Depression, and Martin spent the four years after leaving school traveling from Washington to Delaware to New Mexico in search of jobs, often working outside teaching. At the age of twenty-five Martin began to paint. She earned a BS in fine arts and art education from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1942. She spent the next few years teaching art, including a stint at the University of New Mexico, before becoming a U.S. citizen in 1950. She earned an MA from Columbia in 1952.

At Columbia, Martin attended lectures on Eastern philosophy. These talks, more than abstractionist theories, shaped Martin’s art. To create a painting Martin cleared her mind and waited for images to appear. Her creative strategy reflected the influence of Taoism and Buddhism on the notion of emptying the mind to receive illuminations of absolute reality. She also emptied her life to focus on art. Martin believed painting could not be personal if the artist was distracted by other responsibilities. She never married or had children and never worked other jobs while painting. Her studio was remarkable for its monastic spareness.

When she lived in New Mexico from 1946 to 1951, Martin painted representational landscapes and portraits. She grew dissatisfied with this conventional style of art because the images contained little of the revelatory, transcendental expression that she sought to depict. In 1954 Martin defined her artistic goals as helping to establish a distinct and authentic national art that would represent the expression of the American people, but she had trouble finding a suitable way to illuminate these feelings.

In 1954 Martin made her first abstract painting. On viewing the piece, the gallery owner Betty Parsons persuaded Martin to return to New York City in 1957 to join the abstract expressionists Parsons represented. One of the first artists to live in the fabled artists’ colony at Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, Martin joined artists such as Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jasper Johns. During the decade that she lived in Manhattan, Martin developed a fully abstract style based on tight grids and repetitive linear marks.

Characterized by the abstract expressionist depiction of formless, infinite space and by the way such space evoked immaterial feeling, Martin’s paintings from the era compare with the brightly colored, geometric pictures of such artists as Kelly. Martin, however, avoided the loud motions of other abstract expressionists in the belief that the intimate and gentle gesture could be equally provocative. By the end of the 1950s Martin had completely abandoned figurative imagery in favor of subjective landscape forms that gradually became geometric. By 1964 Martin had shifted from oil to acrylic paint and had replaced her colored pencils with graphite. Acrylic allowed Martin to produce misty background effects, and less-opulent color made it possible for her to experiment with subtle tonal differences through variations in the darkness, crispness, thickness, and density of lines.

By 1967 Martin had stopped painting and given away her paints and rolls of canvas to younger artists. She abandoned her Manhattan loft to tour the western United States and Canada in a camper and pickup truck. Place had become more important than art to Martin, and New York City, with its aggression and competitiveness. was no longer her place. She settled in Cuba, New Mexico, in 1968, building with her own hands the adobe house that would be her home for the next two decades. A poster of a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe was the sole decoration in the house.

Martin did not paint again for seven years. She picked up her brushes in 1974 after a survey of her work was presented by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By this time Martin had become a legendary figure. She never stopped painting again. In a format that seldom varied, Martin used square canvases measuring six feet by six feet on which she drew horizontal graphite lines and painted bands of color with subtly vigorous strokes. The colors were pale one year and black, white, or gray the next year. In a rare concession to age Martin later reduced the size of her canvases so that she could continue to move them herself.

When she moved to a Taos retirement community in the late 1990s, Martin drove to her studio every day to paint. She took a break only to accept a National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1998. Martin exhibited to the end of her life. In 2004 she shocked the art world by abandoning modernist grids in favor of floating, free-form rhomboids on gray backgrounds. Martin died in Taos of complications of pneumonia brought on by chronic heart disease. Far too individualistic to truly belong to a school of art, Martin is generally claimed by both the abstract expressionists and the minimalists. She produced emotional paintings designed to counteract negative thoughts and to promote psychic calm over chaos.

Barbara Haskell, Agnes Martin (1992), is a biography of the artist. Martin’s techniques are described in Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher, eds., 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing, Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin (2005). Jill Johnston, “Agnes Martin, 1912–2004,” Art in America (Mar. 2005), is a reminiscence. Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune and New York Times (both 17 Dec. 2004) and the Washington Post (18 Dec. 2004). A documentary is Mary Lance, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World (2002).

Caryn E. Neumann

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