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The Agnes Martin Enigma

Written by: Ilaria Bevan


Although Agnes Martin is certainly one of the most exciting artists working in the 1960s, her oeuvre continues to perplex numerous scholars, critics and the public. Whilst some suggest she is an Abstract Expressionist, many cite her as a Minimalist. However, her work cannot be so easily categorized. Corey D’Augustine, Painting Conservator and Instructor of Materials and Techniques of Postwar Abstract Painting for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), suggests her paintings are perhaps metaphors for humanity - where conceptual perfection and unconscious imperfection contemporaneously meet. Perhaps this unsolvable idea is the only suitable manner to describe Martin’s mesmerizing and enigmatic pictures? Perhaps it is more suitable to allow her work to float between such classifications in order to empower the undeniable beauty of such complex pictures?


Born in 1912, the same year as Abstract Expressionist hero Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin is undoubtedly one of the most inspirational creative forces working during the second half of the 20th century. She began her 50 year long career in 1947, whilst pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree at Columbia University, New York. Unlike her other contemporaries, such as Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Ad Reinhardt, Martin began painting in her thirties and thus was a late arrival to the New York Art scene. Nevertheless, Martin would go on to become one of the most highly regarded artists working beside these heroes of Abstract Expressionism and her younger contemporaries engaging with Minimalism.


Although Martin destroyed many of her early works, the works that do survive are undoubtedly informed by her engagement with Cubism and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art during her time at Columbia University. Untitled (c.1949) showcases these influences in adopting an earthy colour palette and geometric shapes, supplemented by black biomorphic shapes. Not only are these stylistic innovations indicative of Cubism and Surrealism respectively, but the picture creates an abstract vision of New Mexico, where she had been residing since 1947.


Throughout the 1950s this early style was developed to create works that were saturated with various simplified geometric abstractions, as seen in Window (1957). These muted compositions debuted in an annex of the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1958, the year after she moved from New Mexico back to New York. Several years later, Martin would establish the grid composition that would eventually become the focal point of her career.


Agnes Martin, Untitled, c.1949


Agnes Martin, Window, 1957


Surrounded by a community of upcoming Minimalist artists such as Elsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman all living in Lower Manhattan, Martin was suddenly immersed into a new artistic environment that contrasted greatly with one established by the Abstract Expressionists the decade before, allowing her to explore new terrain that encompassed both generation’s endeavours. Thus Martin’s signature format was born: six by six foot square canvases, a muted palette of pastels and earth tones, and meticulously hand-drawn pencil grids.


The key inspiration behind these grid structures? Innocence. Rather than reacting to her surroundings in New York to produce a rigid, muted version of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-3), Martin visualised “innocence” and saw a grid. This extremely unconventional and surprising creative process is certainly a testament to Martin’s deep spirituality, garnered from her interest in Buddhism and Taoism, as well as her great self awareness. In challenging herself to reach into the depths of her mind, Martin successfully penetrated the walls of intellectualism - the control - to allow creativity to flow resulting in such mesmerising pictures.


Friendship (1963) is just one of the many fascinating works within Martin’s oeuvre. Although this picture does not uphold her traditional muted palette it is equally contemplative to other works. Friendship is one of three large square canvases made with gold leaf and gesso. Martin’s engagement with materials with such rich historical attributions is exploited further in the sgraffito technique that was used to create her grid structure and also reveal that which lies beneath the gold leaf. Once the top layer has been scratched away the substitution of red bole for red oil paint to enhance the intense gold colour of the leaves is exposed. In doing this Martin dictates a subtle contemporary narrative that mingles with the Renaissance references to connect present and past together in unbroken friendship, as perhaps the title suggests.


However, the sgraffito technique also visually charges the surface of the picture. The incisions, that are created by scratching motions, in the gold leaf devise a landscape of imperfections on the canvas surface that refuse the rigid linearity of the traditional grid format. The grid is disrupted by the unevenness of the canvas surface, the visible jumps in the scalpel movement across the gold leaf and purposefully defected angles. By retaining the visual flaws made by these incisions in the grid, Martin allows her handiwork to inform viewers of her technical processes whilst successfully illustrating the unique qualities of her grids.


Agnes Martin, Friendship, 1963


All of Martin’s other grid pictures made in the 1960s embrace the variety of broken and disjointed lines that make up the grid format. The Tree (1964) and Summer (1965) both comply with this format, despite utilising different materials than Friendship; oil and pencil on canvas and watercolour, gouache and ink on paper respectively. Whilst the range in materials is a testament to Martin’s superior ability to play with a variety of materials, her grid vision and element of human error still reigned on her personal creative throne. In works such as these, Martin would allow the pencil to jump, the ink to smudge and the tensions between freedom and confinement to permeate her lines to create such mesmerising compositions.


Agnes Martin, The Tree, 1964


Agnes Martin, Summer, 1965


In 1967, at the height of her career, Martin's dear friend and notable Abstract Expressionist painter Ad Reinhart passed away. This loss prompted Martin to leave New York in favour of the open expanse of New Mexico. Between then and 1974, Martin made almost no paintings, instead focusing on her meditation and life in solitude. When she returned to painting, her work was characterised by more bold geometric shapes with an emphasis on larger horizontal or vertical lines as seen in Untitled #5 (1975) . Moreover, Martin also began to employ a warmer, yet still slightly muted, colour palette that appears to be evocative of the mountainous landscapes of Taos. From here Martin continued to explore the realms of geometry as well as delving into a warmer, bolder colour palettes with works including Untitled #9 (1995). These developments continued well into her later career in works such as Untitled #1 (2003) and it is clear that she has abandoned her previous muted tones and the entrancing eternity of boxes in favour of harsh geometric formulas enhanced by block contrasting colours.


Agnes Martin, Untitled #5, 1975


Agnes Martin, Untitled #9, 1995


Agnes Martin, Untitled #1, 2003


Nevertheless, Martin’s words “I hope I have made it clear that… [my] work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our mind but that the paintings are very far from being perfect . . .'' resonated across her entire oeuvre. Despite her mature style being significantly different from her infamous grid paintings, the tension between superficial perfection and human error is ever present, making her work exciting at whatever stage in her career. In the end, one comes to wonder whether it matters at all if she is categorized under the label of Minimalist or Abstract Expressionist. It is of greater importance that she breaks from such restrictions, managing to dip her toes into the realms of both movements, appearing to go beyond their branches as she explored the realms of the unconscious and of humanity within her work. To me, it is this quality that makes her paintings so exciting and so formidable.


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