Named one of 10 greatest living artists in the December 1999 edition of Art News magazine, Agnes Martin has been creating her “brilliant, dignified, radically and profoundly beautiful” paintings for more than 40 years. Although she painted portraits and biomorphic abstractions earlier in her career, Martin settled on her signature grid abstractions in the 1960s.
Her paintings start with a square canvas before she contradicts, reduces, and destroys the authority of the square by using rectangular forms to create tensions within the larger square format. Martin has remained true to what “looks good to [her],” yet she can create so much variation with a simple change of size in horizontal band width or a subtle shift in a wash of pale color.
Compared to artists ranging from Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko to Hanna Darboven and Sol LeWitt, Martin is often characterized as a Minimalist, but thinks of herself as an Abstract Expressionist. She studied Eastern philosophy, remains committed to the idea of beauty of “transcendent response,” and feels that the emotional content of her work is central to fully appreciating it.
Her haunting and contemplative paintings, which seem to capture and reflect light, invite us to sit back and ponder the deeper questions of life. As one critic noted, “[Agnes Martin’s paintings] remind us of one of the reasons painters make art in the first place: to create a sort of beauty, to express those things which, if they could be explained or reduced to words, would not be worth the trouble of translating into a painting.”