Born in 1912, and having long outlived all her contemporaries of the Abstract Expressionist generation, Agnes Martin has created a four-decade-long body of work that could equally be described as ahead of its time and as timeless. In the mid-1960s, Martin was applauded as a herald of the cool geometric Minimalism that was emerging in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism, but she herself declined that claim, for she saw the Minimalist approach as impersonal and dispassionate. Her own abstractions use a combination of ideal geometry and the lightest touch of the artist's hand to achieve a pitch of emotion and feeling.
Martin grew up in the Pacific Northwest, then in the 1940s, as a student, was drawn to the arid, open landscape of New Mexico. The vast Southwestern desert, which cannot be justly represented in painting, was a defining experience for her; as she later described it, "I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought/my mountains looked like ant hills/I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought/the plain had it/just the plane."1 At the urging of her dealer, Betty Parsons, Martin lived and worked in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Abstract Expressionism was at its zenith in the city and the Pop and Minimalist movements were soon to be born. In her Lower Manhattan studio at Coenties Slip—the downtown nexus of a group of young artists including Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana, with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg also living nearby—Martin discontinued her soft biomorphic abstractions and began to develop sparse geometric constructions often based on grids.
A four-foot-square canvas from 1959, The Spring, introduces a geometric vocabulary within a square format: a series of three gray horizontal lines painted between upper and lower rectangles prefigures the artist's career-long focus on variations of horizontal lines and fields. Two untitled works from 1959 introduce the potential for the grid, and the subtle relationship between square and rectangle, as bases of Martin's developing language: in one, a small rectangle of thick, smooth white paint is articulated by a delicate grid inscribed with the sharp edge of a palette knife, in the other, also white, two rectangles float on a nearly raw six-foot-square canvas. The six-foot square soon became the support for nearly all of Martin's paintings until 1985, when the square was reduced to five by five feet.
The repetitive marks and lines of the continuous allover grid paintings that Martin began in the early 1960s earned her the reputation of being an inspiration for the Minimalists. Yet the grid that underlies the paintings, as the artist says, is never mechanical and never rigid: "My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a little bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn't set out to do it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power."2 Through simple geometry, Martin found, she could pursue a classical perfection that she described as absent from nature, held only in the mind. Using rectangles, squares, and grids of points and lines, she virtually dispensed with traditional notions of composition in painting. Even the inventors and heroes of abstraction, from Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and the Russian Kasimir Malevich to her own Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, had clung to the powerful dynamics of painterly composition. Martin's delicate rectangular grids of pencil lines, on the other hand, lightly echoing the weave of her square canvases, as in The Beach (1963) or The Peach (1964), border on the edge of being paintings at all. Merging the classical abstract ideal of Platonic geometry with an empty, egoless Taoist meditation, Martin dematerializes the canvas into a transparent, nonhierarchical field of vision, perhaps suggesting the experience (rather than the image) of the landscape of the Southwest desert.
In the 1966 exhibition "Systemic Painting," at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Martin's grids were celebrated as quintessential examples of the new Minimalist art and were hung among works by artists including Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, and Donald Judd. Indeed, these grids could have formed the Minimalists' armature and seemed to prefigure the disappearance of traditional painting into nonhierarchical two- and three-dimensional rhythms of theme and variation. Meanwhile, however, Martin was coming to reject much of her own work, along with that of the Minimalists, as too material, and New York City as too distracting to be conducive to inspiration. In 1967 she moved permanently to the Southwest, and she also gave up painting for close to a decade. Alone, living on an empty mesa in Cuba, New Mexico, Martin built her own adobe house, where she pursued isolation as a means of seeking inspiration. "I suggest to artists," she wrote, "that you take every opportunity of being alone."3 Not until the mid-1970s did she reemerge with new work on canvas, blending pencil lines with translucent washes of pale color.
Martin's recent paintings—epitomized by her 1999 Innocent Love series, made specifically for Dia—seem to emanate light rather than reflect it. Gently insistent horizontal lines suggest an infinite space beyond the serial grid of the eight five-foot-square canvases. The theme of innocent love may be related to the artist's descriptions of the "untroubled state of mind" (often referred to in her journals) that allows for "moments of inspiration," which "added together make what we call sensibility."4 Young children, innocent and untroubled, have many more inspirations than adults, Martin writes. She has also said that it was in thinking about the innocence of trees that she first considered the grid. A pure, abstract, egoless, untroubled state of mind is conveyed through these nearly immaterial works and through Martin's infinite vision.
1. Agnes Martin, Writings—Schriften (Winterthur: Kunstmuseum Winterthur, in association with Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1991), pp. 36–37.
2. Ibid., p. 29.
3. Ibid., p. 117.
4. Ibid., p. 62.