Martin, Agnes (1912—)

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Martin, Agnes (1912—)

American artist . Born Agnes Bernice Martin on March 22, 1912, in Macklin (also seen as Maklin), Saskatchewan, Canada; daughter of Malcolm Ian Martin and Margaret (Kinnon) Martin; immigrated to United States, 1932, naturalized citizen, 1940; attended Western Washington College, 1932; attended Columbia University, 1941–42, 1951–52; University of New Mexico, B.F.A., 1954.

Had first solo exhibition in New York (1958); inducted into American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1989); held major retrospective exhibitions in Europe (1991) and the United States (1992). Wrote The Perfection Underlying Life and The Untroubled Mind.

Selected works:

White Study (1958); Little Sister (1962); Orange Grove (1965); Morning (1965); Desert (1966).

Agnes Martin, born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, in 1912, came to live in the United States in 1932. She became a U.S. citizen in 1940 and earned a B.A. (1941) and M.F.A. (1954) at Columbia University in New York City. In 1947, she headed west to paint and teach in New Mexico, working intermittently at the University of New Mexico into the 1950s; she also worked in New York, teaching children in Harlem, in the early 1950s. Returning to live full time in New York in 1957, Martin settled into an artists' community in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan. There, over the next ten years, she developed the "grid" style for which she became famous.

Originally portraying human figures and landscapes, Martin's paintings moved into Surrealism and were influenced by Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. In the 1960s, she began to create a new style, veering towards geometric minimalism, later recognized as "minimal" or "boundless field" art. The change came after Martin joined her Coenties Slip neighbors, Ellsworth Kelly and Ad Reinhardt, in a revolt against Abstract Expressionism and what she saw as egotistical romanticism. "I would like my work," she noted, "to be recognized as being in the classic tradition"; she also stressed the spiritual significance of her paintings, which were composed of vertical and horizontal lines with extremely subtle variations. The artist has said that looking at her boundless field paintings is like looking at a waterfall, or at the sea.

Starting with paintings like White Study (1958), in which two rectangles are situated on the canvas, Martin moved on to paint rectangles filled with grids, always with borders around them. Eventually, a single rectangle filled the entire canvas, and after 1964 most of her paintings consisted of canvas or paper entirely covered by a grid, as in Little Sister (1962), Orange Grove (1965) and Desert (1966). Naturalistic details and color disappeared, and the grids, frequently pencil on acrylic, were usually monochromatic (for example, Play, Hill and Adventure of 1966 and 1967). According to Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein , Martin produced her most minimal, pure paintings in 1966 and 1967. Critic Lawrence Alloway has assigned her a historic role in the development of modern art. In her poetry and lectures, Martin implied that her paintings might contain Christian and Buddhist symbolism, and referred to the need to defeat pride in order to achieve humility. "When pride is lost," she wrote, "we feel a moment of perfection."

Agnes Martin had solo exhibitions annually between 1958 and 1967, and also exhibited in dozens of prestigious group shows in the United States and Europe. Although she left New York in 1967 to return to New Mexico, and for six years gave up painting for writing, she continued to be a presiding figure in the New York art scene. She also produced a film, Gabriel, in 1976. Martin received the Alexej von Jawlensky Prize from the city of Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1991 and the Oskar Kokoschka Prize from the Austrian government in 1992. Her works are in the collections of museums throughout the United States and Europe, including the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, all in New York City; the Tate Gallery in London, England; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands; and the Musée national d'art moderne in Paris, France. In addition, her work is displayed in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada.

Agnes Martin, who moved from Galisteo, New Mexico, to Taos, New Mexico, in 1992, continued to exhibit in individual and group shows, both nationally and internationally, through the late 1990s. She was a featured artist at the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Pace Wildenstein, the gallery that has represented her since 1975, presented an exhibition of Martin's work in 1997, just before her 85th birthday.


Harrap's Illustrated Dictionary of Art and Artists. Harrap's Reference, 1990.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

suggested reading:

Haskell, Barbara. Agnes Martin. With essays by Anna Chave and Rosalind Krauss and writings by Agnes Martin. NY: Whitney Museum of Art, 1992.

Morris, Linda. Studio, 1973–74.

Ratcliff, Carter. Art News, 1973.

Beth Champagne , journalist and freelance writer, West Barnet, Vermont

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Martin, Agnes (1912—)

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