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Agnes Bernice Martin (March 22, 1912 – December 16, 2004) was a Canadian-American abstract painter, often referred to as a minimalist; Martin considered herself an abstract expressionist. She won a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998.
Agnes Bernice Martin was born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, grew up in Vancouver, and moved to the United States in 1931, becoming a citizen in 1950. Martin studied at Western Washington University College of Education, Bellingham, WA, prior to receiving her B.A. (1942) from Teachers College, Columbia University. After hearing lectures by the Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki at Columbia, she became interested in Asian thought, not as a religious discipline, but as a code of ethics, a practical how-to for getting through life. A few years following graduation, Martin matriculated at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where she also taught art courses before returning to Columbia University to earn her M.A. (1952).
Her work is most closely associated with Taos, New Mexico, although she moved to New York City after being discovered by the artist/gallery owner Betty Parsons in 1957. That year, she settled in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan, where her friends and neighbors, several of whom were also affiliated with Parsons, included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman. Barnett Newman actively promoted Martin's work, and even helped install Martin's exhibitions in the late 1950s at Betty Parsons Gallery. Another close friend and mentor was Ad Reinhardt. In 1961, Martin contributed a brief introduction to a brochure for her friend Lenore Tawney's first solo exhibition, the only occasion on which she wrote on the work of a fellow artist. In 1967, Reinhardt died and the studio at Coenties Slip was slated for demolition. After Martin left New York and moved to Cuba, New Mexico, she did not paint for seven years and consciously distanced herself from the social life and social events that brought other artists into the public eye. In 1974, she collaborated with architect Bill Katz on a log cabin she would use as her studio.
That same year, she completed a group of new paintings and since 1975 has exhibited regularly. According to a filmed interview with her which was released in 2003, she had moved from New York City only when she was told her rented loft/workspace/studio would be no longer available because of the building's imminent demolition. She goes on further to state that she could not conceive of working in any other space in New York. When she died at age 92, she was said to have not read a newspaper for the last 50 years. The book dedicated to the exhibition of her work in New York at The Drawing Center in 2005 – 3x abstraction (Yale University Press) – analyzes the spiritual dimension in Martin's work.
The Agnes Martin estate is represented by Pace Gallery, New York.
In addition to a couple of self-portraits and a few watercolor landscapes, Martin's early works include biomorphic paintings in subdued colors made when the artist had a grant to work in Taos between 1955 and 1957. However, she did her best to seek out and destroy paintings from the years when she was taking her first steps into abstraction.
Martin praised Rothko for having "reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth." Following his example Martin also pared down to the most reductive elements to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize transcendent reality. Her signature style is defined by an emphasis upon line, grids, and fields of extremely subtle color. Particularly in her breakthrough years of the early 1960s, she created 6x6 foot square canvases that were covered in dense, minute and softly delineated graphite grids. In the 1966 exhibition Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Martin's grids were therefore celebrated as examples of Minimalist art and were hung among works by artists including Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, and Donald Judd. While minimalist in form, however, these paintings were quite different in spirit from those of her other minimalist counterparts, retaining small flaws and unmistakable traces of the artist's hand; she shied away from intellectualism, favoring the personal and spiritual. Her paintings, statements, and influential writings often reflect an interest in Eastern philosophy, especially Taoist. Because of her work's added spiritual dimension, which became more and more dominant after 1967, she preferred to be classified as an abstract expressionist.
Martin worked only in black, white, and brown before moving to New Mexico. The last painting before she abandoned painting and left New York in 1967, Trumpet, marks a departure in that the single rectangle evolves into an overall grid of rectangles, here drawn in pencil over uneven washes of gray translucent paint. In 1973, she returned to art making, and produced a portfolio of 30 serigraphs, On a Clear Day. During her time in Taos, she introduced light pastel washes to her grids, colors that shimmered in the changing light. Later, Martin reduced the scale of her signature 72 x 72 square paintings to 60 x 60 inches, and shifted her work to use bands of ethereal colour. Another departure is a modification, if not a refinement, of the grid structure Martin has used since the late 1950s. In Untitled No. 4 (1994), for example, one views the gentle striations of pencil line and primary color washes of diluted acrylic paint blended with gesso; the lines are not measured by a ruler, but rather intuitively marked by the artist., In the 1990s, symmetry would often give way to varying widths of horizontal bands.
Since her first solo exhibition in 1958, Martin’s work has been the subject of more than 85 solo shows and two retrospectives including the survey, Agnes Martin, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, which later traveled to Milwaukee, Miami, Houston and Madrid (1992–94) and Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1974–1990 organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, with subsequent venues in France and Germany (1991–92). In 1998, The Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico mounted Agnes Martin Works on Paper. In 2002, the Menil Collection, Houston, mounted Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond. That same year, the Harwood Museum of Art at the University of New Mexico, Taos, organized Agnes Martin: Paintings from 2001, as well as a symposium honoring Martin on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
In addition to participating in an international array of group exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale (1997, 1980, 1976), the Whitney Biennial (1995, 1977), and Documenta, Kassel, Germany (1972), Martin has been the recipient of multiple honors including the Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the Women’s Caucus for Art of the College Art Association (2005); the Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts given by Governor Gary Johnson, Santa Fe, New Mexico (1998); the National Medal of Arts awarded by President Bill Clinton and the National Endowment for the Arts (1998); the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement by the College Art Association (1998); the Golden Lion for Contribution to Contemporary Art at the Venice Biennale (1997); the Oskar Kokoschka Prize awarded by the Austrian government (1992); the Alexej von Jawlensky Prize awarded by the city of Wiesbaden, Germany (1991); and election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York (1989).
Martin's work can be found in major public collections in the United States, including the New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, NM; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; The Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; The Menil Collection, Houston, TX; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others. Her work is on "long-term view" and part of the permanent holdings of Dia Art Foundation, Beacon, New York.
International holdings of Martin's work include the Tate, London and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden.
In 1994, the Harwood Foundation Museum in Taos, part of the University of New Mexico announced that it would renovate its Pueblo-revival building and dedicate one wing to Martin's work. The gallery was designed according to the artist's wishes in order to accommodate Martin's gift of seven large untitled paintings made between 1993 and 1994. An Albuquerque architectural firm, Kells & Craig, designed the octagonal gallery with an oculus installed overhead, and four yellow Donald Judd benches placed directly under the oculus.
Wendy Beckett, in her book American Masterpieces, said about Martin: "Agnes Martin often speaks of joy; she sees it as the desired condition of all life. Who would disagree with her?... No-one who has seriously spent time before an Agnes Martin, letting its peace communicate itself, receiving its inexplicable and ineffable happiness, has ever been disappointed. The work awes, not just with its delicacy, but with its vigor, and this power and visual interest is something that has to be experienced."
Poet Hugh Behm-Steinberg's poem "Gridding, after some sentences by Agnes Martin" discusses patterns in the natural world, makes a parallel between writing and painting, and ends with a line about the poet's admiration of Martin's work.