Progression of Art
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]
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
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
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
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 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