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. She came of age as a painter in Santa Fe and New York City during the height of Abstract Expressionism.
Martin first became a teacher in backwoods schools, one of which was a one-room school in the woods of Idaho. In 1941, she moved to New York and enrolled in Columbia University’s Teachers College where she began to draw and paint. She left New York after one year. 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.
Martin returned to New York in 1957 living in a two-block waterfront neighborhood of Coenties Slip near other abstract artists such as the neon sculptor Chryssa and 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 as she translated the New York school of abstraction into a more minimal art.
Her earlier 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, sometimes accompanied by Tawney. 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 began to paint again. Almost all of Martin’s works since that time are marked by horizontal bands on 72 inch square canvases, originally chosen as her format since the early 1960s. The fact that 72 is divisible by almost every digit – 2,3,4,6,8,9 – permitted her to set an endless variety of regular rhythms across her planes. She placed her canvases directly on the wall and hung them sideways so that the bands would be vertical. In this way, gravity caused the paint to flow, reinforcing the bands’ horizontal reach. The chalky white color of gesso absorbed the color and light, spreading an inner glow across her canvases.
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. She had a major retrospective at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2018 and recently at London’s Tate Modern.