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Agnes Martin
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essay Agnes Martin, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

For more than five decades, Agnes Martin remained committed to a form of painting that strives for a purity of visual experience. Her spare, nonrepresentational canvases are concerned with timeless, universal subject matter. Though her use of a grid structure aligned her with the practitioners who ushered in the 1960s movement of Minimalism, her affinities lay with Abstract Expressionism, a movement she revered. As a young artist, she kept one foot in each world: in the Abstract Expressionist sense, her paintings are all-over compositions, with every area of the canvas given equal consideration. In her adherence to a resolutely spare surface, however, she formed an important bridge to the work of artists such as Frank Stella, who were concerned with erasing gesture from their work. Yet Martin never lost the sense of emotional content that was a hallmark of the New York School, even though her brand of Expressionism was removed from the heroic gestures of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock that were filled with bravura, and often biography. Martin’s subtle meditations were quietly contemplative—impersonal, but no less powerful.

Martin is in the company of artists drawn to the expression of the sublime through abstract means. The nonuniform, rectilinear grids of Piet Mondrian were a key precedent for her, and Ad Reinhardt, who espoused the teachings of Zen in his writings, was an important contemporary. Though influenced by Taoism and Zen, Martin did not consider her art to be religious, but rather inspirational, in the sense that it might invoke a transcendental state. Her extensive writings put forth a carefully articulated philosophy about her endeavors as an artist, which often bordered on poetry: [the paintings are] “not really about nature/It is not what is seen—/It is what is known/forever in the mind.”1

After spending her early years in Vancouver, Washington, and New Mexico, Martin settled in New York in 1957 and moved to a studio space at 27 Coenties Slip.2 Her early paintings and drawings embraced abstraction in the form of subtly toned, biomorphic compositions. She soon gained notice for her work, and presented her first solo exhibition in 1958.3 Her admiration for Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko inspired her to consider using geometry as a way to attain a state of purity in her work. She became fascinated with the grid as a basis for her paintings. For Martin, the meaning of the grid was a metaphysical one—she sought to empty her work of ego, and saw “humble” lines delineating blank rectangles as a metaphor for a purer state of consciousness, as in the Buddhist notion of emptying of the mind in order to attain illumination.4

Her first mature paintings were initially received, however, in a more physical sense, since grids, as used by Sol LeWitt and others, were seen as the ultimate nonreferential construction. Her gridded canvases were exhibited alongside pioneering works of Minimalism by Carl Andre, Donald Judd, LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, and Stella.5 Having arrived at her new system, Martin painted prolifically in the 1960s, exploring myriad permutations of lines, grids, and subtle hues. In 1967, she abandoned painting to be closer to the land, and began to explore the American West. In 1968, she returned to New Mexico (where she lived and worked until the end of her life), and in 1974 resumed painting.6

The works that followed were fine-honed articulations of her earlier pieces. Untitled # 7 (1977) is fashioned from India ink and graphite. Like many of Martin’s compositions, the painting is structurally divided around a central horizontal axis. Though the canvas is square, the grid is formed of two sizes of rectangles, her intention being, she had remarked in 1967, to make “a sort of contradiction, a dissonance… . When I cover the square with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power.”7 Within the spare format of the painting, Martin subtly manipulated palette and structure to remarkable effect. In both the ruled graphite lines and veil of gray that is the ground, the artist’s hand is visible throughout. The pencil marks hover on the canvas as ethereal tracings, creating a sense of expansiveness. Untitled #1 (1980), also in the Walker Art Center’s collection, exemplifies the delicately nuanced use of color that came to characterize her later work. The alternating, pale bands of bluish grays and creamy whites, barely there, evoke shimmering light. “The memory of past moments of joy leads us on,” Martin wrote in 1977. “Reality, the truth about life, and the mystery of beauty are all the same.”8

  1. Martin, unpublished notes, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Quoted in Lawrence Alloway, “Agnes Martin,” in Lawrence Alloway and Ann Wilson, Agnes Martin, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1973), 12.

  2. This lower Manhattan address housed a community of artists, including Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and Jack Youngerman, and was a nurturing environment for Martin.

  3. Her premier show was at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, which was among the first to champion the Abstract Expressionists.

  4. For a thorough analysis of Martin’s work in relation to her writings and philosophy, see Barbara Haskell, “Agnes Martin: The Awareness of Perfection,” in Barbara Haskell, ed., Agnes Martin, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992), 93–117.

  5. Martin was included in the New York exhibitions Geometric Abstraction in America (1962) at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Systemic Painting (1966) at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

  6. An impetus for resuming her activities in painting was the invitation from Parasol Press to make screenprints. The result was a portfolio of thirty prints, the only artwork Martin completed between 1967 and 1973. This portfolio, entitled On a Clear Day, is in the Walker’s collection.

  7. Quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, “Homage to the Square,” Art in America 55 (July–August 1967): 55.

  8. Agnes Martin, “What Is Real?” in Dore Ashton and Agnes Martin, Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1957–1975, exh. cat. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1977), 17–39.

Engberg, Siri. “Agnes Martin.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center