Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada
Taos, New Mexico
Summary of Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin's sparse, luminous canvases are not easily categorized as they are at the crossroads of several disparate 20th-century styles. An intensely private person, Martin was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her 40s; she led an austere and solitary existence in a remote area of New Mexico for most of her working life. Like many artists in the 1950s and 1960s, she was influenced by Zen Buddhism and Taoism that contributed to her interest in nature. Despite the abstraction of her paintings, it was the innocence and simplicity of everyday life - especially the natural world - that she attempted to capture in her work.
- Martin used the grid as an organizational element in canvases that were awash with color, thus seamlessly blending what on the surface are two very different art styles: Minimalism and Color Field.
- Martin's works are non-representational, yet the titles of her paintings and her own words about her art and life indicate that she was strongly influenced by nature - a focus that brought together different areas of her life. Her adherence to Buddhism encouraged her to rely on her everyday surroundings for subject matter; and her schizophrenia meant that she did not relate well or easily to humans, so that nature represented a calm, ordered refuge.
- Martin's use of the grid along with her focus on non-representation released the artist from the burden of traditional subject matter while allowing her to explore infinite variations of subtle color. The resulting freedom of her artwork was at odds with the monastic restraint of her daily life.
Biography of Agnes Martin
Agnes Bernice Martin was born on an isolated farm to Scottish Presbyterian settlers. Her father, a wheat farmer, passed away when Martin was two and her mother sold real estate to support the family. Martin had a difficult relationship with her emotionally distant mother, but was close to her maternal grandfather, who introduced her and her two siblings to spiritual texts such as The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) by the English preacher John Bunyan. Her family relocated several times, finally settling in Vancouver, where Martin swam competitively and tried out for the Olympic team. She immigrated to Washington in 1931when she was 19, gaining U.S. citizenship in 1950. She pursued studies at the Western Washington State College in Bellingham from 1935 to 1938. She moved around quite a bit on the west coast, teaching at public schools in Washington and Delaware before enrolling in the art education program at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York City, graduating with a BS in 1942. She then pursued graduate studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she also taught, before returning to Columbia to earn her MA in 1952. While at Columbia, she began attending lectures by the Zen Buddhist academic D.T. Suzuki. Martin's aversion to chaos led her to follow the tenets of Zen Buddhism and Taoism throughout her life.
Important Art by Agnes Martin
Martin destroyed much of her work made before the late 1950s when she shifted to a grid format, so works from this period of her oeuvre are scarce. Her early style has been compared to that of Arshile Gorky and, like his works, Untitled displays Martin's debt to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. This canvas, with large swaths of earthy clay, black, and sunset orange, incorporates the biomorphic elements and expressive lines of those movements, while also absorbing the landscapes of the Southwest, where Martin would periodically return. The triangles echo the mountains and hills of Taos, and the colors recall the rusty, arid backdrop that she encountered daily. Although the local flora and fauna appealed to Martin greatly, she was also involved with the artists that flourished in Taos and engaged actively with the community during her time there in the 1940s and 1950s.
With Window, Martin's forms became less organic and more rigid as she experimented with rectangular forms, anticipating the later introduction of the grid's mathematical precision in her work. The title of the piece references a recurrent subject in Western painting, yet in this work the "windows" are opaque and do not allow a view. This lack of view accords with Martin's statement that she paints "with my back to the world," implying that her works do not attempt to capture reality or personal experience, but instead evoke a response in the viewer: a mood, an emotion, a fleeting moment of joy. Although this work was created during the first years of Martin's final return to New York, Window still incorporates a Southwestern palette, while abandoning the curved line of earlier work. Here, she reduced her format to the square and her colors to cooler grays, beiges, and blues, but the title and the colors still suggest a landscape, though one that has been compressed into four geometrical shapes.
A few years prior to painting Night Sea, Martin began utilizing grids in her compositions that freed her from representation; she settled on a six-foot square canvas for all of her works, further simplifying her practice. The art historian Barbara Haskell notes that Martin's shift may have been influenced by Lenore Tawney, a Coenties Slip neighbor and fiber artist who worked with looms and with whom Martin had a relationship. The grid's abstraction released Martin from any obligations to subject matter, while allowing her to explore endless variations of color, thus providing her a freedom that she did not allow herself in her (self) circumscribed existence. Although the painting does not obviously depict a "night sea," the two brilliant hues of blue are under-painted with a gold leaf grid that shimmers and seems to move like light reflecting on an expanse of water, of which she had a view from her studio on the East River. What initially appears to be a solid mass of pure blue from afar becomes a richly complex surface upon closer inspection.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Agnes Martin
- Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, RemembrancesBy Arne Glimcher
- Agnes Martin (Dia Foundation)By Lynne Cooke, Karen Kelly, Rhea Anastas
- Agnes MartinBy Barbara Haskell
- Agnes Martin: Writings / SchriftenBy Agnes Martin, Dieter Schwarz
- Agnes Martin, Abstract Painter, Dies at 92By Holland Cotter / New York Times / December 17, 2004
- Agnes Martin, 92; Abstract Painter Won the Golden LionBy Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times / December 17, 2004
- Review of "...going forward into unknown territory... Agnes Martin's Early Paintings 1957 - 1967" and "Agnes Martin: An Homage to Life"By Deborah Garwood / artcritical.com / June 1, 2004
- Rep Diary: Gabriel and CreationBy Max Nelson / Film Comment / September 9, 2013
- Some Late Thoughts on the Early Work of Agnes MartinBy William Peterson / New Mexico Mercury / November 20, 2013
- Interview with Agnes Martin (2001)