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Agnes Martin

American Painter

Movements and Styles: Color Field Painting, Minimalism

Born: March 22, 1912 - Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada

Died: December 16, 2004 - Taos, New Mexico

Agnes Martin Timeline

Important Art by Agnes Martin

The below artworks are the most important by Agnes Martin - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Untitled (1949)
Artwork Images

Untitled (1949)

Artwork description & Analysis: Martin destroyed much of her work made before the late 1950s when she shifted to a grid format, so works from this period of her oeuvre are scarce. Her early style has been compared to that of Arshile Gorky and, like his works, Untitled displays Martin's debt to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. This canvas, with large swaths of earthy clay, black, and sunset orange, incorporates the biomorphic elements and expressive lines of those movements, while also absorbing the landscapes of the Southwest, where Martin would periodically return. The triangles echo the mountains and hills of Taos, and the colors recall the rusty, arid backdrop that she encountered daily. Although the local flora and fauna appealed to Martin greatly, she was also involved with the artists that flourished in Taos and engaged actively with the community during her time there in the 1940s and 1950s.

Oil on canvas - Collection of Scott K. Stuart, Albuquerque [copyright 2012 Agnes Martin/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Window (1957)
Artwork Images

Window (1957)

Artwork description & Analysis: With Window, Martin's forms became less organic and more rigid as she experimented with rectangular forms, anticipating the later introduction of the grid's mathematical precision in her work. The title of the piece references a recurrent subject in Western painting, yet in this work the "windows" are opaque and do not allow a view. This lack of view accords with Martin's statement that she paints "with my back to the world," implying that her works do not attempt to capture reality or personal experience, but instead evoke a response in the viewer: a mood, an emotion, a fleeting moment of joy. Although this work was created during the first years of Martin's final return to New York, Window still incorporates a Southwestern palette, while abandoning the curved line of earlier work. Here, she reduced her format to the square and her colors to cooler grays, beiges, and blues, but the title and the colors still suggest a landscape, though one that has been compressed into four geometrical shapes.

Oil on canvas - Dia Art Foundation, New York

Night Sea (1963)
Artwork Images

Night Sea (1963)

Artwork description & Analysis: A few years prior to painting Night Sea, Martin began utilizing grids in her compositions that freed her from representation; she settled on a six-foot square canvas for all of her works, further simplifying her practice. The art historian Barbara Haskell notes that Martin's shift may have been influenced by Lenore Tawney, a Coenties Slip neighbor and fiber artist who worked with looms and with whom Martin had a relationship. The grid's abstraction released Martin from any obligations to subject matter, while allowing her to explore endless variations of color, thus providing her a freedom that she did not allow herself in her (self) circumscribed existence. Although the painting does not obviously depict a "night sea," the two brilliant hues of blue are under-painted with a gold leaf grid that shimmers and seems to move like light reflecting on an expanse of water, of which she had a view from her studio on the East River. What initially appears to be a solid mass of pure blue from afar becomes a richly complex surface upon closer inspection.

Oil and gold leaf on canvas - Private Collection

Leaf (1965)
Artwork Images

Leaf (1965)

Artwork description & Analysis: Around 1964, Martin began using acrylic paint rather than oil and simultaneously replaced colored pencils with graphite. The thick, heavy surfaces of oil gave way to acrylic washes that seemed to melt into the canvas, heightening the visual clarity of the work. In Leaf, the grid continues to be the architecture of Martin's composition, and the texture of the work is simplified down to intersecting graphite lines, a change from the thick paint used in previous canvases. As her work gradually turned away from a pronounced materiality through these new techniques, it began to change in other ways as well, becoming more lyrical and contemplative. The titles she assigned to her work also reflected her ongoing interest in nature and the environment. Martin in fact claimed that the idea of a grid first entered her mind when she was thinking about the innocence of trees. The grid, rather than conveying mathematical precision, allowed Martin to represent the order and simplicity of nature without reproducing it in a representational manner. Her working method with her grid paintings was unswerving. She would wait on a full-color vision; once it arrived she worked out the composition through fractions and long division on paper; then using tape and a short ruler, she would mark out the grid on a gessoed canvas. The color was applied quickly and if there were any errant drips or other mistakes, she would destroy the canvas, sometimes starting over half a dozen times before she was satisfied.

Acrylic and graphite on canvas - Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas

Gabriel (1976)
Artwork Images

Gabriel (1976)

Artwork description & Analysis: After leaving New York permanently and traveling through America and Canada, Martin returned to New Mexico to live in isolation. She focused intensely on her writing and made her first foray into filmmaking with Gabriel, her only feature-length film. The film follows a young boy who observes the surrounding environment with great curiosity and intensity. Martin eschewed narrative, instead allowing the camera to meander with the boy, who is exposed to trees, rocks, sand, water, and sun. The lack of storyline and continuity break from Martin's rigid grids, demonstrating an alternative method of realizing her lifelong search for peace through artistic production. The gallerist Arne Glimcher recalls Martin pursuing another film, going so far as hiring actors and shooting several scenes. The project was never completed and was eventually abandoned. Although Martin did not activate her filmmaking career, Gabriel was another effort in exploring landscape, prompting an understanding of humans through their reaction to nature.

16mm film with color/sound, 79 minutes - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Untitled XXI (1980)
Artwork Images

Untitled XXI (1980)

Artwork description & Analysis: Untitled XXI is an example of Martin's work after the mid-1970s. Whereas work such as Night Sea dissolved grid and color to present a shimmering expanse of blue, Untitled XXI emphasized areas of divided colors that appeared discrete and radiant. As with Leaf, Martin continues to use acrylic washes and graphite pencils, employing the chalky gesso primer as the base for the background. Her palette here remains muted, not straying too far from pastels, pale grays, and blues. Martin, however, utilizes stacks of dusty yellow and pink bands, relying on a slightly warmer, rosier mix of color that harkens back to earlier works that rely on a Southwestern palette, perhaps in this case referencing a sunset. Though Untitled XXI is not explicitly designated as a landscape, by name or representation, Martin throughout her artistic life attempted to capture the sublime of everyday nature through her continued variation on the square format. She began to title her paintings again in the 1990s.

Gesso, acrylic, and graphite on canvas



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Agnes Martin Photo

Related Art and Artists

Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51)
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Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51)

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Artist: Barnett Newman

Artwork description & Analysis: Translated as "Man, heroic and sublime," Vir heroicus sublimis was, at 95"x213", Newman's largest painting at the time it was completed, although he would go on to create even more expansive works. In it we see a vast field of dark red punctuated twice with vertical lines that Newman coined "zips." He believed that this abbreviated signature motif could communicate qualities of humanity which found echoes in ancient art. He intended audiences to view his paintings from a close vantage point, allowing the colors to fully surround them - hence he was considered to be a Color Field painter. He also felt the intimacy the painting provoked was much akin to two people meeting and the kind of inherent chemistry that evoked.

Although Newman's work was important to the movement for its scale and simplicity, it was this relationship between painting and viewer that was most notable. Mel Bochner, an artist associated with Conceptualism, remembered encountering it at MoMA in the late 1960s and realizing that its size and color created a new kind of contact between art and the viewer. "A woman standing there [looking at it] was covered with red," he recalled. "I realized it was the light shining on the painting reflecting back, filling the space between the viewer and the artwork that created the space, the place. And that that reflection of the self of the painting, the painting as the subject reflected on the viewer, was a wholly new category of experience."

Similar philosophies, of a stripped down experience between painting and onlooker, would be seen later in the work of the Minimalists.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Lever (1966)
Artwork Images

Lever (1966)

Movement: Minimalism

Artist: Carl Andre

Artwork description & Analysis: Carl Andre's Lever was the most audacious entry at the 1966 Primary Structures exhibition that introduced the public to Minimalism. This row of 137 firebricks aligned to project out from the wall and straight across the floor was likened by Andre to a fallen column. Lever startled gallery visitors, interrupted their movement and, in its simplicity, was annoying. Made from easily available building materials ("anyone could do it: where was the art?"), Lever demanded respect from thoughtful viewers while undermining traditional artistic values. Such provocations became routine for Andre: "my ambition as an artist is to be the 'Turner of matter.' As Turner severed color from depiction, so I attempt to sever matter from depiction." He went on to describe wood as the "mother of matter" and praised bricklayers as "people of fine craft."

In this way, Andre's Lever along with many Minimalist works challenged how art was situated in the gallery and how viewers interacted with it. Art no longer was hung discreetly on the wall or placed on a pedestal in the corner as something to enjoy in a purely visual way. It now required a more complex and thoughtful interaction from the viewer. This piece is made of nontraditional materials that call to mind industrial or building materials that require no manipulation from the hand of the artist. While the work is nonrepresentational, the title is suggestive of manual labor.

Fireplace bricks - Collection of the Artist

Colors for a Large Wall (1951)

Colors for a Large Wall (1951)

Artist: Ellsworth Kelly

Artwork description & Analysis: The large-scale Colors for a Large Wall is one of Kelly's early forays into multi-panel paintings, a fundamental motif throughout his career. Colors for a Large Wall helped introduce his deeply held view of paintings as objects; not only was this painting an object in itself, but it was comprised of many smaller objects (panels) supposedly having come together in chance collision. In this work, Kelly covered each of the 64 square canvases in a single color and fused them together based on a collage study he had arbitrarily arranged. Much of Kelly's subsequent work stemmed from this painting, as he continued to juxtapose panels of differing sizes, shapes, colors and materials in innumerable variations.

Oil on canvas, mounted on 64 joined panels. Dimensions: 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 inches. Photo by courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly - The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist, 1969

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