Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada, the third of four children in a Scottish Presbyterian pioneer family. Life on the wind-swept prairie was always a challenge. Her father was a wheat farmer. He died when Martin was 2. As a young adult she trained as a teacher, first at university in WA, then at Columbia University, Teachers College (NYC). In 1950 she became a US citizen. Martin was a competitive swimmer. She studied Taoist and Zen philosophies throughout her life. She died in 2004 at age 92, working almost ceaselessly until the end of her life.
At age 30 (in 1947), Martin decided to become an artist. Her early paintings were biomorphic abstraction. Betty Parsons (the Betty Parsons Gallery) saw her work in New Mexico and offered Martin gallery representation if she moved to NY. Martin showed at the Parsons Gallery in NYC in 1958. She destroyed all the early paintings when she adopted her square 72×72 inches abstract format.
I feel compelled to write about Agnes Martin, and also feel like an interloper because she guarded her private space her entire life. I am blown away by her biography: her courage to lead the life she chose, her commitment to her artistic vision, and her moxie in the way she dealt with galleries, critics, her illnesses, and naysayers. I am in awe of her extraordinary work practice. Her art was her genius. Her works are her legacy.
The image (above) shows Agnes Martin standing on a ladder, holding a large wood rule, preparing to paint one of her 6×6 foot grid canvases. Martin invented the grid format with pencil and paint on canvas. The year is 1960. Martin is 48. Alexander Liberman took the photo. Martin’s studio at that time was in an abandoned, dilapidated waterfront building in the Coenties Slip area of lower Manhattan in NYC. All the buildings on the Slip were condemned and torn down in the mid 1960s. Martin’s space was an old sailmaker’s loft with two skylights and no running water. She had to dress to stay warm enough to work in the unheated space. Agnes Martin was always a pioneer in spirit.
The painting above is dated 1961 and titled The Islands. It’s 72 x 72 inches, (182.9 x 182.9 cm), oil and graphite on canvas, Estate of Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Look close and you’ll see Martin created tiny horizontal rectangles within a grid that was superimposed on a square canvas. She drew the grid by hand with pencil lines on a canvas that she tinted in muted earth tones with acrylic paint. The white areas that look like dots are individually painted areas within the grid spaces.
Nancy Princenthal, author of the biography Agnes Martin: Her Life and Her Art (Thames & Hudson) wrote: “From a distance, the effect is of diffuse, atmospheric presence. The penciled net gives the white field at its center the slightest degree of play. The whole is chaste, pure; it has a devotional feel and the sense of an ordering: a book of hours, a map of a perfectly ordered world; each island in its place. (p. 86)
Martin also created small works. The image above is titled Tremolo, ink on paper, 10×11 in (25.5×28 cm), 1962, Permanent Collection: the Museum of Modern Art, NY.
The image above is titled The Tree, 1964, oil and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 inches (182.9 x 182.9 cm), Museum of Modern Art, New York, Agnes Martin/SOCAN (2019). In this work, Martin organized hundreds of hand-drawn graphite lines that cross the off-white painted surface horizontally and vertically. Martin said, “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought the idea represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.” She said the grid was not a human measure but “an ethereal representation of the boundless order of transcendent reality” she associated with Eastern philosophies.
The image above is titled Leaf, dated1965, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches (182.9 x 182.9 cm), collection: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Agnes Martin began using acrylic paint in place of oil around 1964 and replaced colored pencils with graphite. She modified her surface, previously heavy with paint, and lightened it with acrylic color washes. She simplified her composition. Her new intention was to represent the simplicity of nature as a geometric abstraction. Her neighbors at Coenties Slip were famous artists, including Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, Lenore Tawney, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist.
I learned during this period, Martin suffered anguish, was filled with thoughts of doom and was treated for schizophrenia multiple times. She was overwhelmed with the pressure of her life, and when her loft space was condemned in 1967, she left NY in a pickup truck, drove to NM, camping along the way, and sought to live a life in isolation and get away from the competition and turmoil of the art world and the demands it made on her. Agnes Martin stopped painting for 7 years.
The image above is titled On a Clear Day #1, screenprint on Japanese rag paper, image size 6 7/8 x 8 inches (17.5 x 20.3 cm), paper size: 12×12 inches (30.5 x 30.5 cm). On a Clear Day is a suite of 30 screen prints (one for each day of the month) that were produced in 1971, near the end of a seven-year period (1967-74) that Agnes Martin had stopped painting completely and lived in isolation on a mesa in New Mexico. She was invited to make the prints that would become the suite. Each print is unique. Shortly after they were completed (it took two years), Martin returned to painting. The screen print subject is the grid again, but this time the images had perfectly straight lines with seamless corners, very different from earlier drawings or paintings that Agnes Martin made by hand. See all 30 individual prints online at Krakow Witkin Gallery.
The image above is a photo of Agnes Martin on property near Cuba, NM in 1974. Photo credit: Gianfranco Gorgon. Martin was 62 in this photo. She didn’t own her house and was evicted from the property. During her time on the mesa, she lived with meager amenities – even a limited diet. She did write and lecture and maintained contact in some way, and became even more famous as a recluse. People needed to find Agnes Martin. She managed to be part of the art world on her own terms, and even had museum exhibitions during this period of self-isolation. Once she returned to painting, her output was prodigious. Every painting started with a vision that took hours to materialize into a plan. Martin spent hours working out the mathematics to scale up the vision to the 72×72 inch canvas size that was her standard format. She primed each canvas twice with gesso so the thin washes of paint would not seep into the canvas, then marked up a grid with a graphite pencil across the canvas weave. She worked with a cloth tape and ruler to mark her lines by hand. She added thin washes of acrylic paint to the canvas so the paint appeared to melt on the surface. If the paint left unintended drips, Martin destroyed the canvas because it didn’t have a perfect surface that matched her vision. Martin said: “We can see perfectly, but we cannot do perfectly.” The inspiration was perfect, but if the final painting contained slight imperfections it was tossed.
Her paintings are drawings. Her tonal grids draw you into an intimate relationship with her lines. When you see her works in person (and you must see her works in person), you want to draw closer. Then you pull back to see how the image changes when the entire canvas fills your field of vision. Richard Tuttle, a close friend, spoke at a panel presentation I attended at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (NYC) retrospective for Agnes Martin in early 2017. He said Agnes Martin created space in each and every work, whether a small drawing on paper or a large 6×6 foot drawing on canvas. Tuttle knew her well. I read how Agnes Martin shunned company (except when and where she chose), rejected relationships with peers, discarded personal connections when they grew stale – and only kept those people near who respected her need for distance, and supported her practice as patrons and gallerists.
As she got older, Martin reduced her canvas size from 72×72 inches to 60 x 60 inches.I Love the Whole World (seen above) is a square canvas, dated 1991, acrylic paint and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Notice there are horizontal peach stripes on a white background. This work is part of the Tate and National Galleries of Scotland, lent by Anthony d’Offay, 2010 onlong term loan, © Estate of Agnes Martin.
The stripes are divided into two sets of eight with a white band running horizontally between them. Martin used an eighteen-inch ruler to draw the horizontal pencil lines across the canvas. She painted with very diluted orange acrylic paint, and allowed the paint to dry between each layer to build up the color. Martin used titles that evoke happy memories. Read more at Tate.
The image above is titled Happy Holiday, 1999, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches, (152.4×152.4 cm), Tate National Galleries of Scotland, Estate of Agnes Martin/DACS, 2009. Many critics say Martin’s iconic grid paintings influenced early Minimalism, calling her a Minimalist. Martin denied she was a Minimalist and maintained she was an Abstract Expressionist because her works were abstract and expressive. She is given credit for the invention of the grid motif. Happy Holiday is one of a series of paintings from the 1990s in which the artist used titles to evoke happy memories from the past.
The image above is Untitled #10 (2002), acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches, (152.4×152.4 cm), Estate of Agnes Martin/Artists rights Society (ARS) NY. If you look closely, you can see the pencil-lined grid beneath the tonal canvas that has six broad horizontal stripes. See details and images online at Pace Gallery. Martin said her striped and gridded paintings were about a feeling of beauty and freedom you might experience in nature – and – being a contrarian, Martin also refused to accept comments from critics who said her works were influenced by nature.
Agnes Martin was determined she would be the one who created her own biography.
Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, Thames and Hudson, 2015
Agnes Martin – Tate Shots: https://youtu.be/902YXjchQsk
Arne Glimcher – Pace Gallery – talks about Agnes Martin
The Guardian: the Artist Mystic Who Disappeared Into the Desert
Krakow Witkin Gallery (On a Clear Day silkscreen prints)
Agnes Martin: Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Agnes Martin Happy Holiday, the National Galleries