Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, expatriate Agnes Martin was a painter of major significance, one of the most admired American painters of the late 20th century. Flat geometric grids or bars, often drawn in pencil on square canvases and washed in thin acrylic paints, characterized Martin’s mature works. These distinctive paintings, usually as wide as a viewer’s outstretched arms, straddled the subjective aspirations of her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in the 1940s and 1950s and the objectively aligned art of 1960s’ Minimalism.
Martin moved to New York to study at Columbia University where she began to draw and paint. In 1947, she participated in a university study program in Taos at the Harwood Museum, where she had her first exhibition. While her five years in Taos were marked by poverty, they contributed to her artistic development. She came of age as a painter in Santa Fe and New York City during the height of Abstract Expressionism.
Artists such as Martin were devising new ways to translate the aspirations of the New York school of abstraction into a more minimal and quietly expressive vocabulary. Martin returned to New York in 1957 living in a two-block waterfront neighborhood, Coenties Slip, near other abstract artists, one of whom was the weaver Lenore Tawney. Martin and Tawney had a very close relationship – possibly a romantic one – and they both influenced one another in the creation of their art. Martin’s adaptation of linear fields and her use of threads to track vertical and horizontal coordinates came from watching Tawney dress her loom. Her paintings were dominated by a palette of gray, black, and white. Her organic abstractions from New Mexico slowly gave way to variations on the grid format over which she would lightly draw spartan grids in soft pencil lines, pale stripes of tamped-down washes of color. The language of the grid, that Martin settled on at this time, became a constant in her work.
In 1967, she left New York and gave up painting for five years. She spent a year and a half traveling in the Western United States and Canada. In 1968, she returned to New Mexico and would spend the rest of her life there.
The second phase of her artistic life began in 1972 when she again began to paint in New Mexico. Almost all of Martin’s works since 1974 have been marked by horizontal bands contained within 72 inch square canvases, that she chose as her format since the early 1960s. The fact that 72 is divisible by almost every digit – 2,3,4,6,8,9 – permits her to set an endless variety of regular rhythms across her planes. She works with the canvas hung on the wall and turned sideways so that the bands are vertical. In this way, gravity causes the paint to flow, reinforcing the bands’ horizontal reach. The chalky white color of gesso absorbs the color and light, spreading an inner glow across the canvas.
In 1993, Martin’s deteriorating health forced her to move to an assisted living facility in Taos. From this point on she began to explore the effects of color once more. She also had to move away from her 72 by 72 inch canvases to the more intimately scaled 60 by 60 inch size.
Martin won the Golden Lion for her contribution to contemporary art at the 1997 Venice Biennale. She was awarded prizes by the German and Austrian governments for her contributions to painting. In 1998, she received the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association and the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts.