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Women of Abstraction (P.5): Agnes Martin

Women of Abstraction (P.5): Agnes Martin

Alexander Liberman, Agnes Martin with Level and Ladder (1960). Photography Archive, Getty Research Institute. Photo: © J. Paul Getty Trust

Agnes Martin was a Canadian-born American artist renowned for her serene, minimalist paintings. She was born in 1912 in Macklin, Saskatchewan, and grew up in Vancouver. Athletic in her youth, Agnes became a provincial champion and local medalist for swimming, coming runner up in the Olympic tryouts in 1928. In 1931, she moved to Bellingham, Washington, to help care for her sister, who was dealing with a difficult pregnancy. After graduating from the Education program at Western Washington College of Education in 1938, she began teaching in public schools. In the early 1940’s, she moved to NYC and attended the Teachers College at Columbia University - after graduating, she spent several years bouncing around the west coast, teaching at the Eastern Oregon College and the University of New Mexico. She became an American citizen in 1950, and after returning to Columbia and receiving her masters in 1952, she settled back in New Mexico.  

In 1957, art dealer Betty Parsons saw Agnes’ paintings and offered her a show, convincing Agnes to return to NYC and move into Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan- affordable home and workspaces that housed a number of artists, including Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly. She signed a two year contract with Betty, and in 1958, caught the attention of the art world with her first solo show at Section Eleven in NYC. Throughout the next decade, she was included in important group exhibitions such as American Abstract Painters at the Arthur Tooth and Sons Gallery in London (1961), The Response Eye at MoMA (1965), and the Systemic Painting exhibition at the Guggenheim (1966).

Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgon

In 1962, however, her painting career came to a temporary halt when she was hospitalized, diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia after being found wandering the streets in a catatonic state. Wanting time to recover after her release, Agnes left New York and decided to retire from art in 1967 - travelling throughout the US and Canada, and eventually moving to Cuba, New Mexico. Throughout the next seven years, though her work was included in exhibitions in the US and Europe, she didn’t create any work - with the exception of travelling to the Domberger Print Workshop in Stuttgart to complete a portfolio of screenprints. In 1974, however, she made a return to painting.  

Buds (1959)

The Egg (1963)

For the rest of her life, Agnes lived in New Mexico, creating her stunning  artworks. Wanting to preserve her mental health, she lived an austere and often quite solitary life - this, coupled with the esoteric writings she published in the late 1960’s, gave her the reputation of a mystic. She exhibited internationally throughout her life, and made her way into permanent collections all over the world- including The Museum of Modern Art (New York), National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh), The National Museum of Art (Osaka, Japan), Tate Gallery (London), and Centre Pompidou (Paris). She has been honored with numerous awards - including the Skowhegan Medal for Painting (1987), the Oskar Kokoschka Prize (1992), a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale (1997), a National Medal of Arts from the Office of the President (1998), and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art (2005). She passed away in Taos in 2004, at the age of 92. 

Untitled (1960)

The Islands (1961)


Agne’s work can be characterized by:
- the use of a black, white, and grey palette or muted, softly applied colours - from 1993 until her death, she used many light pinks and blues, her favorite colors inspired by the Taos sky 

- mainly large format (from 1975 to 1992, she worked mostly 72”x72” - from 1993 onwards, she lived in an assisted living community and reduced her size to 60”x 60” to make it easier to handle); she said she painted large because she wanted the work to be as big as the viewer, as if a person could step into it
- delicate lines, soft focus edges
- integration of the canvas texture into the piece
- use of repetition
- at first glance, perfectly geometric composition - upon closer examination, her lines contain small deviations, showing her hand  

Words (1961)


Little sister (1962)

Agnes’ work is generally divided into two distinct periods - work done up to 1967, when she temporarily abandoned painting, and work beginning in 1972 until her death. Her first, developmental phase saw her progress from representational to increasingly abstract compositions, with her abstractions gradually shifting from biomorphic to geometric images. Her artistic breakthrough came in 1964, when she began making her grid paintings, which she would come to be renowned for. At this time, she switched from oil to acrylic, thinning her paints to a watercolor consistency. She started each of her paintings with extensive mathematical calculations, working the composition out on graph paper before starting. After applying a thin application of gesso, she drew her lines in pencil or waxy crayon, using a small ruler or by tracing a thread stretched across the canvas. 

Summer (1964) 

Friendship (1963)

1) Spirituality
Throughout her life, Agnes explored a range of life views that shaped her thinking - including Calvinism, mystical Christianity, Buddhism, Platonism,and Taoism. As an adult, she meditated daily, believing inspiration could only come to an empty mind. “ My greatest spiritual inspiration came from the Chinese spiritual teachers, especially Lao Tzu,” she said, “ My next strongest influence is the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng.”  

Untitled (1960)

Untitled (1960)

2) Plato and Classical Greek Philosophy.  
Agnes was attracted to the Greek idea of perfection as a thing that exists in the mind but cannot be found in reality. “ I would like my work to be recognized as being in the classic tradition, “ she said, “ as representing the Ideal in the mind.” She was likely influenced by discussions with her partner at the time, Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali, on Greek art and philosophy, as well as by her tutorials with artist Emil Bisstram. A devotee of Plato, Bisstram held that geometry was an important underlying structure of painting. 

Untitled (1977)

The FIeld (1966)

3) Nature 

From childhood, Agnes loved being in nature - fishing, chopping wood, hiking and camping in the mountains were some of her best memories. Though she denied that her art represented landscapes, nature was a constant source of reference in her work, and she often used nature metaphors to describe it. For example, she described various paintings in her 1979 pale blue series as  “a still day in the islands,” “just heading out of the harbour,” or “ inspired by the Northern Isles.”  She was also influenced by urban surroundings - for instance, she initially got the idea of making grid patterns from watching children playing a game of hopscotch.  “Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it, “ she stated, “I want to draw a certain response like this.“ 

4) Fellow artists
Agnes had great admiration for artists such as Rothko, Mondrian, Gottlieb, Gorky, and Pollock.  She thought Pollock was “terrific,” that he “freed himself of all kinds of worry about this world,” and that he “ managed to express ecstasy.”
She found a kindred spirit in Ad Reinhardt, who also attended Columbia and was her gallery mate at Betty Parson’s.

 White Flower (1961)  

Untitled (White Flower) (1961)

5) Music
Throughout her life, Agnes spoke of the failure of words and images to communicate universal human feelings.
For Agnes, music was the greatest art form because it was the “purest,” the most abstract, and was able to solicit the widest range of emotions - she felt that “ the response to music is about ten times the response to visual arts. ” She often compared herself to a composer, and felt that “ just like in music the composition in silences and notes carries the meaning.” 

With my Back to the World (1997)  

Untitled 5 (1998)


Through her work, Agnes wanted to express universal emotion - she was “interested in illustrating abstract emotions like love and happiness.” She often spoke about the emotional components of her work, saying “ I paint about feelings you feel for no reason.“ Innocence, happiness, humility were all the themes she returned to often, and she held that art was successful when it helped bring these types of universal human feelings to the surface in the viewer. For Agnes, art’s value wasn’t in the object, but in the experience of the viewer - she felt that “ the response to art is the real art field.”

Happy Holiday (1999)

I Love the Whole World (1999) 


Throughout her career, curators, critics and art historians frequently grouped Agnes with the Minimalists. 

Though aesthetically she did share similarities with them - clean lines and the use of repetition, for example - Agnes never felt she was one of them. “ The Minimalists were non objective. They just recorded beauty, I guess, without the emotions - or at least without personal emotions,” she said. “ My work is a little more emotional than that.”  Though she lacked the gestural quality of the Abstract Expressionists, she shared their desire for personal expression. “I’m not a minimalist, I’m an abstract expressionist,” she stated, “ I believe in having my emotions recorded in the painting.”

Agnes’ work also lacked the industrial or machine-made look of the Minimalists. Upon close inspection, her hand was evident in all of her works - in the slight mistakes, wavers and variations in her meticulously hand-drawn lines. As art historian Jonathan Katz wrote, “ Martin’s work is nothing if not an index of her hand, the sensitive response to imperfections in the canvas’s weave, the famed ‘tremolo’ that is the guarantor of the artist’s presence.” 

                                                                                              Untitled #1 (2003)

Agnes’ work, life and writings continue to inspire artists across the world. “ The measure of your life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which you are aware,” she once said. Agnes lived her life in search of beauty and devoted to expressing the highest ideals and emotions of humanity, and her beautiful work continues to provide a serene space to step into.  

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