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Agnes Martin, The Islands, 1961, oil and graphite on canvas, 72" x 72" (182.9 cm x 182.9 cm) © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin

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b. 1912, Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada
d. 2004, Taos, New Mexico

Agnes Martin was one of the most influential painters of her generation and left an enduring mark on the history of modern and contemporary art.

Interested in the transcendent potential of painting, Martin was a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, and identified her work with the movement. Nonetheless, her oeuvre played a critical role in heralding the advent of Minimalism.

Martin spent her early childhood years in Saskatchewan, on the western plains of Canada, an experience that would influence her throughout her life. As a young adult, she moved to the United States, first to Bellingham, Washington (1931) and then to New York (1941), and finally to Albuquerque, where she studied painting at the University of New Mexico (1946–48). She returned to New York in 1951 where, while earning a master’s degree at the Teachers College at Columbia University, she became engaged with Buddhist thought through lectures by Jiddu Krishnamurti and Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki. Her interest in Eastern philosophy developed in parallel with her appreciation of Abstract Expressionism, resulting in paintings characterized by biomorphic forms and geometric abstraction, further distilled in an earthy palette of beiges, greens, grays, and creams.

In the autumn of 1954, Martin returned to New Mexico, settling in Taos. Shortly thereafter, she received a grant from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation (1955), resulting in the production of one hundred paintings in the span of a single year. After a studio visit with art dealer Betty Parsons, Martin was convinced to return to New York in 1957. Shortly following her move to a loft in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan, Martin met neighboring artists, among them Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, and James Rosenquist. She also began her association with Betty Parsons Gallery, which hosted her first one-artist exhibition in 1958. The show presented a new development in Martin’s work, wherein atmospheric compositions comprised of simplified geometric shapes on square canvases, introducing a vocabulary that would become synonymous with her oeuvre.

The first part of the 1960s was marked by a surge in Martin’s career, with her participation in the Carnegie International (1961) and inclusions in group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1962, 1965, 1966), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1964, 1966); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1965), and in 10, the seminal exhibition of Minimalist art co-organized by Robert Smithson and Virginia Dwan at Dwan Gallery, New York (1966). Amid these successes, Martin sought solitude. She decided to stop painting and leave New York in 1967, traveling for eighteen months around the United States and Canada. After resettling in New Mexico, she focused intently on writing prose on art and life.

Martin’s first one-artist museum exhibition was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and traveled to the Pasadena Art Museum (1973). This exhibition coincided with On a Clear Day, her one-artist exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1973), which presented thirty screen prints based on drawings produced in 1972. Two years later, Martin’s return to painting was asserted through 12-inch square and 72-inch square canvases, revealing a new emotional and perceptual exploration characterized by horizontal and vertical lines in a palette of pastel pinks, blues, and yellows. These new works were unveiled in Martin’s first exhibition with The Pace Gallery in 1975. The show heralded three decades of prolific expression, during which she continued to explore arrangements of horizontal and vertical bands in varying widths and in a range of muted colors using acrylic, watercolor, and graphite. Around the time Martin returned to painting, she also made her only completed film, Gabriel (1976), which follows a young boy as he aimlessly explores part of rural New Mexico; the film drifts between his course and contemplative studies of natural elements in the landscape.

In 1978, Martin moved to Galisteo, New Mexico, near Santa Fe, leaving behind the remote Portales mesa that had been her home for nearly a decade. Martin’s paintings, with their broad stripes, became increasingly luminous, a result of the artist applying the diluted acrylic color over a ground of multiple layers of white pigment. In 1991, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, hosted a retrospective of her work and, in 1992, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted her first retrospective in the United States. Organized by Barbara Haskell, the show presented early paintings alongside those from the 1960s and 1970s, tracing her development in the nuanced range of her work. Following this exhibition, Martin moved from Galisteo to Taos, where she lived and worked for the remainder of her life and reduced her scale from six-foot square canvases to a slightly smaller five-foot format. In the last decade of her life, she introduced a new palette of color in her paintings, including a spectrum of greens and a saturated orange. In some of her very last paintings, she reintroduced the geometric elements last used in her paintings of the 1950s, placing dark black triangles and squares in space against washy gray grounds, never abandoning the graphite lines that were a constant component of her oeuvre.

Characterized by austere lines and grids superimposed upon grounds of muted color, Martin’s paintings elegantly negotiate the confines of structure, space, draftsmanship, and the metaphysical.

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Agnes Martin, Unbeckoning Grass, 1958, oil on canvas, 40" x 40" (101.6 cm x 101.6 cm) © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1955-1956, oil on canvas, 48" x 36" (121.9 cm x 91.4 cm) © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Agnes Martin, Untitled #10, 2002, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60" x 60" (152.4 cm x 152.4 cm) © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York