"The function of art work is the stimulation of sensibilities, the renewal of memories, of moments, of perfection" – Agnes Martin
By Rachel Owens
Agnes Martin in Taos, circa 1953 © photography Mildred Tolbert
Agnes Martin was a pioneering Abstract artist, known for her distinctly large grid canvases. Born in 1912 in Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada, she spent most her life in the US, becoming a US Citizen in 1940. Martin moved to New York city in 1957, where she would remain for the next decade. During this period, she produced the grid paintings that made her reputation and led to her inclusion in important Abstract Expressionist exhibitions.
I first encountered Martin’s work in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, when I came across Martin’s Rose, 1966. Typical of her grid paintings produced while living in New York, the canvas was vast and I found the painting striking, particularly because of its balance of simplicity and complexity. Martin painted the canvas a delicate cream tone, with a hint of rose, on top of which she drew lines in pencil from one side of the canvas to another to create a grid. It communicated so much with such minimal detail and I could have spent hours contemplating its expanding horizons.
In an interview by Mark Stevens in 1989, Stevens asked Martin how long she would like a viewer to spend looking at one of her paintings. “Well, I’d like them to give it a minute,” she replied. We may think Martin asking for one minute was a modest request but in today’s fast-paced society, devoting sixty seconds entirely to view a painting is a long time. Martin’s work is all about the details though, it requires one minute to become fully engulfed by the canvas, to notice the delicacy of the colour, to follow the pencilled lines from one end of the canvas to the other, and to truly appreciate her work.
Rose, 1966 © Agnes Martin, by SIAE 2012
There is also a delicacy in Martin’s work. On first impression, her work appears traditionally feminine, with her narrow colour palette and soft neutral tones. Martin’s grids have been compared to conventional feminine craft work, as the horizontals and vertices of the canvas resemble the warp and weft of weaving. From a practical point of view, when applying acrylic paint, she added water for a thinned wash, which left a faint but distinct trace of brushstrokes on the surface of the canvas. She drew horizontal lines, which vary only in the intervals between them from painting to painting. These lines are both firm and fluid, and they guide the viewer through the work. Martin’s work is cautious and you can tell that calculations were made at length before she approached the canvas. Therefore, Martin’s paintings require a great amount of attention, as only upon closer examination of her work does one begin to see their imperfections.
Martin’s work has also been associated with Minimalism as Martin reduces the colours she uses in favour of pure light. However, as each painting is unique and cannot be reproduced, this spontaneity and singularity ties Martin’s work instead to Abstract Expressionism, rather than Minimalism. On first impression, Martin’s grids appear to be made up of perfect squares, free from error. On closer inspection, the viewer can see where her pencil has slipped slightly or trailed off and you can notice that when her pencil became blunt, she twisted it to use the other side. Her grids are not divine structures, they are rendered with artistic and human imperfections.
“My formats are square, but the grids are never absolutely square… (there is) a contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way… (it) lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power” – Agnes Martin
Whilst living in New York, Martin established herself as an Abstract painter and destroyed most of her work created prior to moving to the city. But why did Martin decide to paint grids, what do these grids represent, and what was her inspiration?
In 1979, Rosalind Krauss published ‘Grids’ in the journal October, where she analysed the importance of the grid structure and its relationship with the Modern movement. Krauss stated that the grids connection to modernity is due to its spatial and temporal sense. This can be applied to the works of Martin, as in the spatial sense, Martin’s grids are flattened, stripped back, and ordered. There is a geometric nature to Martin’s work. When she produced her grids, the pencilled lines which formed the grids do not terminate at the edge of the canvas, instead they just fade off. This evokes an image of an infinite plane and the scale engulfs the viewer into the work. As stated by Krauss, the grid pervaded art in the Twentieth Century, featuring in many of the modern art movements, from de Stijl to Cubism to Dada. However, it was Martin who incorporated the grid into Abstract Expressionism.
After moving to New York, Martin was approached by Betty Parsons, an early advocate of Abstract Expressionism. Parsons had opened a gallery in 1946 in New York and represented many Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock, Rothko, Reinhardt, Still, and Newman. Parsons’s support was crucial in Martin establishing herself as an artist in New York and she stayed with Parsons for a brief period after arriving in the city. Parsons also gave Martin her first New York show in 1958, introducing her to many artists she would later live with.
Martin’s work, similar to other Abstract Expressionist works characterised by large consuming canvases, demand the viewer to see them in the flesh in order to truly appreciate them. Like other artists in the movement, Martin stretched her own canvases but as she got older, she had to reduce their scale in order to be able to move them on her own. This showed that the Abstract Expressionist movement was a male-dominated one, even from a stereotypical point of view of to having to stretch one’s own canvas and being able to move them with physical strength.
Milk River, 1963 © Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
After leaving New York in 1967, Martin travelled the Pacific Northwest, in both the United States and Canada. This voyage interrupted her artistic career as she would make no paintings, by her account, for four and a half years. When Martin returned to painting in the early 1970s, the grids, which were such a distinctive aspect of her earlier work gave way, with some initial hesitation. Her grid format transformed into broad stripes. Perhaps the grids, which were so characteristic of Martin’s New York period, represented the urban grid of the city’s street system, which faded into broad free stripes once leaving the city and illustrated the freedom Martin felt living in New Mexico.
Untitled #2, 1992 © Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society
Agnes Martin lived until she was 92, settling in Taos, New Mexico, where she spent much of her life. As a pioneering Abstract artist, her work is interesting as in many aspects, although is extremely difficult to label. Briony Few wrote: “it is striking that Martin does not draw a distinction between drawing and painting. On the contrary, she collapses it. The distinction instead is in her use of scale.” She belongs solely to neither Abstract Expressionism nor Minimalism, her work is neither masculine nor feminine, and is simple yet complex – which is what makes it so unique.