Agnes Martin - Biography and Legacy
Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada
Taos, New Mexico
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.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Martin divided her time between New York City and the southwest, where she spent a considerable amount of time painting. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, the dusty, dry landscape of the American Southwest would continually hold Martin's interest. In 1947, she participated in a study program through the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico, an important hub for postwar landscape painters such as Marsden Hartley and Ernest Blumenschein. In 1957, the influential gallerist Betty Parsons, after seeing Martin's work in New Mexico, convinced Martin to relocate and show at Parson's space in New York. Parsons had helped launch the careers of several American Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, as well as Martin's friend and confidant Ad Reinhardt.
During the early 1950s, Martin lived in the Coenties Slip enclave of lower Manhattan near Wall Street, where her neighbors included Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. These artists would often explore downtown neighborhoods, visit each other's studios, and take ferry rides together. She also befriended Barnett "Barney" Newman, who installed her shows. Martin was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia during this period and was subject to auditory hallucinations and catatonic trances throughout her life. She was hospitalized several times beginning in the 1960s, once in Bellevue, where she received shock therapy before her friends could get her out. In this pre-Stonewall era, Martin was also a deeply closeted lesbian, but when asked about feminism at one point, she claimed that she was not a woman.
After Martin exhibited with Parsons, she became associated with Abstract Expressionism and Color Field. She continued to experiment in her practice, arriving at the grid format for which she is famous in 1961. Her work was included at the Solomon R. Guggenheim's landmark "Systemic Paintings" exhibition in 1966, and was also shown at Virginia Dwan's gallery in 1967 at the groundbreaking exhibition "10" that included the work of Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Sol LeWitt. The exhibition is recognized as having established an unofficial canon of Minimalist artists. After the death of Reinhardt and the planned demolition of the building in which her studio on Coenties Slip was located, Martin stopped painting in 1967 - giving away all of her paint supplies and canvases - to travel through the West and her native Canada in a pickup truck and camper. She eventually settled and built her own adobe home in a remote area of New Mexico with few modern amenities and focused on writing poetry. In 1973, she produced a portfolio of serigraphs based on her own drawings, On a Clear Day. That same year, a large retrospective displaying her works from 1957 through 1967 opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. She began painting again in 1974 after a seven-year hiatus. In 1976, she directed the movie Gabriel, her first and only attempt at filmmaking.
Late Period and Death
Martin lived a spartan life in the remote town of Cuba, New Mexico for several years with no television or radio and limited human contact, then moved to Galisteo in 1977. One person who visited her regularly was Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery whom she met in 1963 and who became her lifelong friend. In 1992, she settled in a retirement community in Taos at the foot of Taos Mountain, becoming more social and less austere as she aged. In addition to painting everyday from 8:30 to 11:30 in her studio, she collected a number of cars that she kept in pristine condition. In 1995, Martin downscaled her canvases to sixty-inches-square from the six-foot-square stretchers she had used since the 1960s. Prior to her death in 2004, Martin, who had never hired assistants, realized that she would need help physically handling her usual five-foot-square stretchers or be forced to scale down her canvases. Instead of compromising her studio practice, Martin made the resolute decision to quit painting. When she passed away later that same year she had not read a newspaper in five decades. She requested an unmarked grave so that there would be no pilgrimages to her gravesite
The Legacy of Agnes Martin
Although Martin abandoned the artistic hub of New York in favor of a solitary existence on the other side of the continent, she continued to refine her practice while traveling, writing, and experimenting with filmmaking. Perhaps ironically, her seclusion skyrocketed her fame; many devotees ventured to New Mexico in search of Martin, who reluctantly received her callers. The last few decades of her life were spent painting and writing, her practice becoming a metaphor for her search for tranquility. Her work is especially influential in India and China.