Agnes Martin

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Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin (born 1912) was a Canadian-born American painter who became well known in the mid-1970s for her spare canvases of geometric lines and grids.

Agnes Martin was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, where her father was a wheat farmer, in 1912. After his early death, she spent her youth in Vancouver, where her mother renovated and sold old houses. She studied in Washington State, the University of New Mexico, and Columbia University in New York City, after which she taught in public schools and universities in the West, Southwest, and East Coast of the United States. She became an American citizen in 1950, and took several sojourns in New York between 1941 and 1954. In the 1950s she settled in Taos, New Mexico, only to come back to New York in 1957 at the urging of art dealer Betty Parsons. She returned again to the Southwest, where she remained.

Prior to her move to New York in 1957 Martin's work consisted of conventional still-lifes and portraits, followed by more abstracted and biomorphic canvases reminiscent of surrealists such as Jean Arp, Joan Miro, and Archile Gorky who used the exploration of the unconscious as subject matter and process in their work. In New York Martin lived in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan where she was close to a group of younger American artists who became associated with a kind of abstraction characterized by large, simple, geometric forms painted or sculpted with a hard-edged precision. Among her colleagues there were Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, and Robert Indiana, as well as James Rosenquist and artist-performer Ann Wilson.

From about 1958 on she adopted a more geometric style using the motifs of squares, rectangles, and finally grids lightly drawn over areas of pale color. These works, large in scale, projected a sense of pure abstraction, a "classicism" softened by the delicate tension of the stroke of a human hand. It is this work for which she is best known, coinciding with a general tendency in American art towards reductivism, or the reducing of a work of art to a few well-chosen elements which, together, project a wholeness and unity and reject representation and illusion. This was a kind of outgrowth of Abstract Expressionism that can be traced through the more stark canvases of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Other artists connected with this movement, labeled "Minimalism" by critics but often renounced by the artists themselves, were Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Dorothea Rockburne, as well as Martin's friend Ellsworth Kelly. This purist sensibility had earlier origins in the 20th century in the work of Russian Constructivists such as Vladimir Malevich and El Lissitzky and the Dutch De Stijl artists Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg.

What distinguishes Martin's work from the other Minimalists is her light touch. Her use of delicate, barely discernable color, along with an insistent horizontal line, leaves an evocative sense of landscape, specifically the desert in which she spent so much of her life. While many of the artists around Martin deny that their work is "referential"—that is, refers to anything in the real world—Martin's paintings, while not descriptions of specific times or places, allude to general states of mind and to the "spirit" or "essence" that Oriental artists seek to capture in traditional Japanese and Chinese painting and calligraphy. In fact, Martin was interested in Chinese theories and practices of art and she wrote a number of long statements and poems based loosely on an Oriental manner of inquiry. Especially interested in the power of absences, an excerpt from one states: "Two late Tang dishes, one with a flower image one empty. The empty form goes all the way to heaven."

In 1967 Martin left New York, resettled in New Mexico, and did not paint again until 1974. Her refusal to paint for seven years at the height of her professional success added to her enigma, as though she were choosing spirit over matter. Prior to this departure she showed her work with the legendary Ms. Parsons, an early champion of American artists, but in 1975 she had an exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York where she showed thereafter. Major exhibitions of her work were held at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1973 and at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1977. She was included in numerous group exhibitions in the United States and Europe.

Most of the critical attention given to Agnes Martin focused on her work from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s when it, along with the work of her colleagues, formed a dialogue central to issues of new art at that time. After the mid-1970s she remained a private person by distancing herself from New York. She became an object of fascination and respect for many younger artists. In 1976 she produced a film called Gabriel, which features no dialogue and shows Martin following a boy along a western Canadian landscape. She continued painting and holding exhibitions, and in 1989 was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. A major retrospective of her work was held from 1992 to 1994 by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and in 1995 she participated in the Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney.

In an interview with Holland Cotter in the New York Times Martin expressed the philosophy guiding her in painting, saying, "I say to my mind, 'what am I going to paint next?' Then I wait for the inspiration. You have to wait if you're going to be inspired. You have to clear out your mind, to have a quiet and empty mind."

Further Reading

There is little written about Agnes Martin or her work prior to her arrival in New York at the age of 45, but much was written in art journals and magazines after that. A catalogue was published for her exhibition at the Hayward Gallery with an essay by art critic Dore Ashton (1973) and another catalogue was published in 1977 for her exhibition in Philadelphia with an essay by Lawrence Alloway. The latter catalogue also contains oral and written statements by the artist titled "The Untroubled Mind," "Willie Stories," and "Parable of the Equal Hearts." Another catalogue published in Germany in 1973 included notes by Agnes Martin "On the Perfection Underlying Life." A single issue of the magazine Artforum in April 1973 had two articles on the artist, one about her work at that time and another by art critic Lizzie Borden about earlier work and its relationship to what followed. A profile of her by Holland Cotter, "Like Her Paintings, Quiet, Unchanging and Revered," was in the New York Times, and an interview with her, "Agnes Martin Attention!" by Peter Schjeldahl, was in Interview magazine. A biography of Agnes Martin with a list of her exhibitions and articles about her is available from the Pace Wildenstein Art Museum in New York City. □

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Agnes Martin

Born Agnes Bernice Martin, March 22, 1912, in Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada; died of complications from pneumonia, December 16, 2004, in Taos, NM. Artist. Agnes Martin touched many people throughout her career, despite her tendency to shut herself off from the world. She was considered one of the great painters of the Abstract Expressionist period. Her paintings of barely there colors and lines also led some critics to characterize her as a Minimalist, a categorization she rejected. Martin won numerous awards including a National Medal of the Arts and a Golden Lion for her contribution to contemporary art.

Martin was born to Scottish Presbyterian pioneers in Canada. Her father died when she was two, and her mother raised her family by purchasing old properties, renovating them, and then selling them. The family moved to Vancouver, and her maternal grandfather helped in rearing her and her brother, using the Bible and John Bunyan's Pilgim's Progress to mold them. Though Martin began drawing at an early age, she decided upon a teaching career. She moved to the United States to attend Western Washington College of Education, in Bellingham, Washington from 1935 to 1938. She began teaching in high schools in various states, including Washington and Delaware. She transferred to the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. Martin earned both her bachelors and masters degrees from Teachers College. She also taught in high schools in New Mexico. During this time, Martin attended seminars taught by Krishnamurti and Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki. These teachings would profoundly affect her, both personally and professionally.

Though Martin worked as a teacher, painting was never far from her heart. She continued honing her craft, and participated in a study program at the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico. She fell in love with the area, and soon resettled there. She held her first art exhibit in Taos. Her time in the town, famous for the abundance of artists who were drawn to the town via word-of-mouth or its natural setting in the mountains, was not full of pleasant-ries. She endured hardship after hardship as her paintings sold for very little and not as often as she would hope. Her studio also doubled as her home for a time. Also during this time, she became a United States citizen.

Martin's art came to the attention of Betty Parsons of the legendary Betty Parsons Gallery. Parsons helped the talented artist sell a few of her paintings, and offered her a solo exhibition as long as Martin would agree to move back to New York. Martin agreed and, with the help of renowned artist Ellsworth Kelly, found a loft on Coentis Slip to live in. Coentis Slip was home to a number of struggling artists—such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and James Rosenquist—whose art would become commercial successes in later years. Martin's loft was in dire need of repairs and renovations; she installed her own plumbing, and also located a studio in which to paint.

In 1958 Martin held a solo exhibition at the Parsons Gallery. Influenced by Abstract Expressionist artists such Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, she began creating abstract paintings in place of landscapes and portraits, which she had previously done. Her style mimicked her contemporaries, but soon she came into her own style. According to London's Times, Martin stated she came into her artistic maturity around 1960. Her method, according to theTimes, included: "a square format; canvas primed with two layers of gesso; hand-drawn pencil lines; thin layers of paint, first in oils, then in acrylic which she preferred because it was much quicker to dry."

With this method Martin's art became both lucrative and critically acclaimed. She usually kept to herself and found the pressures of the New York art world overbearing. With Coentis Slip scheduled for demolition in 1967, Martin decided to leave the art world. She gave away most of her possessions, including her painting supplies, and soon embarked upon a journey across the United States and Canada. She would not paint for seven years. She resettled in New Mexico, built an adobe house by herself, and focused on writing instead.

However, Martin's work was not soon forgotten. She still held several solo exhibitions during her self-imposed exile, including a major retrospective of her work at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art in 1973. And though she felt her work was more in line with the Abstract Expressionist period, many Minimalist period artists were heavily influenced by her art and sought her out. During her "exile" she also built three more buildings on her land and kept mainly to herself, living a very simple and quiet life.

In 1974 she began painting again. She kept her home base in New Mexico, though she moved from one town to another twice. She chose to create smaller paintings versus hiring an assistant to help her move her paintings. In 1992, she moved into a retirement residence in Taos. She continued painting, but spent most of her days with friends or in quiet solitude. She had no radio or television, and she had not read a newspaper in five decades.

Martin's art reflected her quiet and simple life. According to the Chicago Tribune, she said, "I often paint tranquility. If you stop thinking and rest, then a little happiness comes into your mind. At perfect rest you are comfortable." According to Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times,"An acute attention to life's quiet rhythms characterized her work."

Martin held solo exhibitions in many countries, including England, France, and Japan. She also participated in a variety of group exhibitions. Her paintings are a part of collections in a variety of museums, including the Whitney Museum in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

In addition to her paintings, Martin also wrote several articles and books, some non-art-related. They include 1971's On A Clear Day,1992's Writings/ Schriften, and La Perfection inherente a la vie, published in 1993. Martin received numerous awards and honors for her contributions to art. She was named one of "100 Women of Achievement" in 1967 by Harper's Bazaar and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was awarded a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Biennale. Martin died of complications from pneumonia in her home at the Plaza de Retiro, a retirement community in Taos, New Mexico, on December 16, 2004; she was 92. She is survived by a grandnephew, Derrick Martin.Sources: Chicago Tribune, December 17, 2004, sec. 3, p. 9; Contemporary Women Artists, St. James Press, 1999; Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2004, p. B12; New York Times, December 17, 2004, p. C9; Times (London), December 18, 2004, p. 67; Washington Post, December 18, 2004, p. B6.


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Agnes Martin (Agnes Bernice Martin), 1912–2004, American painter, b. Macklin, Canada. She moved to the United States in 1931, became a U.S. citizen in 1950, and emerged as an important artist in the late 50s and early 60s. Martin is best known for her spare, abstract all-over grid paintings. Penciled on canvases that are monochrome or washed in muted colors, these emotionally evocative works seem to glow with an interior light. Her use of line expresses both strength and delicacy within a restrained yet luminous form. Martin, who came to New York City in 1957 and left it a decade later, settled in New Mexico, and abandoned painting until 1974. Her later works are intimate yet impersonal, and often created in series. They usually contain horizontal bands drawn in graphite and painted in a subtle, limited palette that suggest a shimmering, mysteriously lighted, and depthless space. Among the many public collections that include her paintings are the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, and Guggenheim Museum, New York City, and the Tate Gallery, London.

See her Writings (1992); study by B. Haskell (1992).