Agnes Martin was a painter who was born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1912, and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. When she was 2 years old, her father died, leaving her mother with four children to raise. Seeing her mother live independently may have influenced Agnes to live her own life in a way very unconventional for a woman of this era - as an artist and as a person. She came to the United States in 1931, and lived in Washington and Oregon until 1940. She attended college in Bellingham, Washington and at the University of New Mexico, and received her B.S. degree from Teachers College in Columbia University, New York. In the late 1930's and the 1940's, she taught in the public schools of Washington, Delaware and New Mexico, at the University of New Mexico in the late 1940's, and at Eastern Oregon College in 1952-53. In 1950, she became a United States citizen. From 1952 to 1957, she lived in Taos, New Mexico, where she showed her work to Betty Parsons, of Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Parsons offered to handle her work if she moved to New York City, so she moved east in 1957.
She had lived and taught periodically in New York in the 1940's and early '50's; in 1957 she moved to the Coenties Slip section of lower Manhattan, an area where a number of artists lived, including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman. In 1958, she had her first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Up to this point, she had painted landscapes and figurative watercolors, as well as surrealistic images, and had made some three-dimensional pieces. At this time, she began the simplified abstractions for which she has become well known, and began to receive acclaim for this work within the decade. In 1967, she traveled in the West and in Canada, then moved back to New Mexico in 1968, building an adobe and log house on a mesa outside of Cuba, New Mexico. She stopped painting for 7 years during this time, starting up again in 1974. She painted most of her 92 years, and became a respected and influential contemporary artist. (She died in 2004 at her residence in Taos, New Mexico at the age of 92.) In 1976, she also produced a film, Gabriel, about a young boy quietly exploring the world.
In 1973, she had a major retrospective of her work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Other major exhibitions have been held at the Pace Gallery in New York, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and many other national and international venues. She has also received numerous honors and awards, including: the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale in June 1997, for her lifetime achievement of 60 years of painting and her contribution to contemporary art; and the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) National Medal of Arts in 1998. Another career highlight was the establishment of the Agnes Martin Gallery, holding a series of seven of her paintings, at the Harwood Museum of Art at the University of New Mexico, completed in 1997. Her paintings now sell for high dollar amounts at auctions at Sotheby's and other auction houses.
Until her death, she lived in a retirement community in Taos, New Mexico, in humble surroundings. Richard Polsky visited her there in 1994, and describes the visit in an article on www.artnet.com. He writes that the only picture she had on her walls was a poster of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. He also mentions that she spoke of a fund set up by her dealer, to purchase works by Abstract Expressionist artists, then donate them to museums, as a way for her to give back to the art which influenced her during her formative years. (The gifts are given anonymously to museums.)
Martin's spare abstractions, non-material in nature, can be perhaps partially explained by the landscape of New Mexico - the high desert and the red sandstone cliffs. Although for many years her work was done mainly in grays and white, in the last few years she painted in muted pastel washes of earth red and sky blue, and greens and yellows, perhaps because of the white desert light and the colors of the earth in the southwest. Georgia O'Keeffe comes to mind naturally, since O'Keeffe also favored and lived in the same area, and painted semi-abstract visions of the same landscape. In fact, looking at Martin's paintings, they seem like a more abstracted version of O'Keeffe's vision. But Martin had her own unique artistic evolution and motivations to paint - inspired by her interest in Asian philosophy, and influenced by the ideas surrounding the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940's and '50's in America. Her work was influenced greatly by nature, however not in the sense of replicating nature - rather, she wanted the viewer to experience the same feelings they have when in front of nature. Some of her titles allude to nature - to leaves, rivers, flowers, etc., but her work has more to do with expressing positive inner states of existence. She has been associated with the Minimalist movement, but her work is less rigid, less cerebral - more spiritual in inspiration than Minimalist. She shared with her friend, the artist Richard Tuttle, certain attitudes about art and life, which stem from their interest in eastern philosophy - the ideas of ego-lessness, humility, and the Tao - in life and in art.
She wrote about life and art in a book called Writings, which includes her poetry and thoughts. One poem from 1973 is as follows (from the Guggenheim Museum website):
I can see humility
Delicate and white
It is satisfying
Just by itself...
a precious gift
I would rather think of humility than
Humility, the beautiful daughter
She cannot do either right or wrong
She does not do anything
All of her ways are empty
Infinitely light and delicate
She treads an even path.
Sweet, smiling, uninterrupted, free.
In the late 1940's, she was doing still life and portrait painting; by the early 1950's she began to develop the symbolic and biomorphic forms also used by the then growing Abstract Expressionist movement - such painters as Mark Rothko, William Baziotes, and others. However, by the end of the 1950's, she had developed her own brand of geometric abstraction, influenced by the ideas of the Abstract Expressionists, but without their sense of gesture and action. With Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, she explored simple abstractions; her work formed a link between these Abstract Expressionist roots and the Minimalist movement which was to come in the 1960's. However, her work radiated more than strict formal simplicity - there is a purity, transcendence, and radiance, and a strong meditative quality to them - which is absent from much of Minimalist work. Their subtlety is so strong that only by viewing them in person can one see the minute nuances. She and Tuttle have spoken about how important simplicity is - in the eastern philosophical sense, simplicity is a very hard thing to achieve. Her work consists of horizontal and vertical bands, sometimes alone, sometimes together in a grid format, a format seen throughout 20th century art. She uses pigment and graphite, and rules the lines and small marks of the all-over compositions by hand, so imperfections can be seen. (She has also used a rubber stamp to make the marks in her prints, which removes some of this human quality and artistic ego.) The compositions are dense with very small and delicate markings, which repeat exactly over the entire surface. There are no emphasized areas - all are treated equally. There are minimal value contrasts, and only soft color - so there are no focal points or contrasts to distract the meditation of the viewer, and hopefully remind the viewer of other, higher realities.
She said that she began a work by developing a mental image of it - and had a clear image of the composition before she started; then she concentrated on the scale and proportions. (Many of her paintings adhere to a roughly 6-feet by 6-feet format.) She used a very limited number of elements, and with these she created an image that seems to be woven, rather than painted. The economy of elements, however, is not used systematically, as the Minimalists did. There is an organic sense of shifting and growth to her work, of changing rhythms. These are delicate, gentle, poetic paintings, meant for quietness and subtlety, which rely on no ideology - whether feminist, minimalist, or other. When talking about life and her work, she spoke of beauty, mystery, love, innocence, happiness, exultation and the idea of perfection in our minds - which exists only in our minds. She said she gave up figurative painting because of its limitations in expressing her vision, which could be expressed only in non-objective form. To her, the straight horizontal line is the essence of the plains of New Mexico - the vast spaces. She said that she did not choose the grid as a format - that it chose her, when she was thinking about innocence; the image of the grid came to her mind, so she painted it. To her, the grid represents wholeness, boundlessness, quiet and ego-lessness - an expression without words.
In some of her later images, there is a variation of the all-over quality, where the grid pattern fades in some areas, leaving a shimmering and shifting of spatial depth. In these works and others, the subtle color relationships take on almost a sacred quality, perhaps like Rothko's fields of luminous color. In the limited means, there is an amazing richness - and the instinctive need to stop and look very carefully, at the minute gradations across the surface of the painting. When we see such things, in art or in life, we automatically look harder to catch the slightest indication of what might be there. We are forced, really, to really LOOK. And that is what artists are supposed to do - make us stop and really look. In the catalogue, reproduced for an exhibition of Martin's and Richard Tuttle's work at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, there is a great quote from Martin about how to look at her work. She recommended doing the same as when we look at the ocean: "You just go there and sit and look." I think this is in a "nutshell" what eastern philosophy, and art, can be - we look to the ocean in a primal way. (Perhaps we originally came from there, or there is some other reason why we are so drawn to it.) But regardless of why we are drawn, we see in the ocean some kind of answer, an assurance - that, if nothing else, the universe is unfolding in its cosmic mystery, or that "life goes on" - some kind of peace, or perspective about life. We look without the need for words - in fact, we are counting on the wordlessness to comfort us.
It is hard to get a real sense of Martin's work from the Web - but here are two links with more of her images: