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."
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.