American, born Canada
1912, Macklin, Canada
2004, Taos, New Mexico
Agnes Martin (1912–2004) evokes joy, beauty, and perfection with her grid paintings, geometric abstractions, and muted color palette. Born in Canada, Martin immigrated to the U.S. in 1932 and worked for many years as a teacher and painter in New Mexico and New York. At age forty-five she moved to Coenties Slip, Manhattan, where she lived alongside such artists as Lenore Tawney, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Indiana. In the late 1950s she began producing square compositions based on grids using subdued colors, loosely ruled graphite lines, and painted bands. Influenced by Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and transcendentalism, she considered her work a reflection of the innocence and beauty of nature. Martin returned to New Mexico in 1968 and, after a hiatus of several years, continued to create abstract paintings, drawings, and prints, moving from grids to pastel stripes and geometric forms. Though Martin identified as an Expressionist, her work also resembles Minimal and Color Field painting. Her intricate compositions reward the viewer who slows down and looks closely.
The artist on beauty, life, and art
Artist Agnes Martin wanted to make “a living painting.” Her rare titled works bear the names of natural phenomena, “wheat” or “night sea.” But even these are hardly traditional landscapes.
The frailest stems, quivering in the light, bend and break, in silence. This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen, it is what is known forever in the mind.
Her large square canvases immerse you in their world, sharing a simple and clear vision of what the artist called non-objective beauty, pure experience without an outside reference point. Agnes Martin, from a lecture in 1987.
When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. In our minds, we have an awareness of perfection that leads us on.
An artist is fortunate in that his work is the inner contemplation of beauty— of perfection in life. We cannot make anything perfectly, but with inner contemplation of perfection we can suggest it.
These paintings are environments of purity and discipline, borne out in the calm repetition of line, the subtle variation within a muted color palette. When Martin settled on the grid, she destroyed every piece of her earlier work that she could get her hands on. She said she preferred the grid because it was ego-less, and later on refused to accept awards for her painting because she was quote “not responsible for the work.”
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