Thursday 9 July 2015

Agnes Martin

'Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this... that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature, an experience of simple joy... My paintings are about merging, about formlessness.. A world without objects, without interruption'.
'These prints express innocence of mind. It you can go with them and hold your mind as empty and tranquil as they are, and recognise your feelings at the same time, you will realise your full response to life'. 

Agnes Martin

at Tate Modern.

Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912, Martin moved to the United States where she studied fine art and art education. It was only when she was thirty years old that she decided to become an artist and studied art in New Mexico. She became interested in East Asian philosophy and eventually moved to the remote town of Taos, New Mexico where she taught art in schools and undertook a variety of other jobs in order to support her own painting.

Often considered the pivot between Abstract Expressionism and the newer tendency of Minimalism, Martin's paintings are the epitome of serenity and contemplation. Her work has not achieved the renown of her mostly male contemporaries in abstraction, partly because the subtleties of her paintings are almost impossible to reproduce in print.


Untitled, 1955

Having painted naturalistic landscapes, still lifes and portraits as a student, Martin moved towards abstract forms in the 1950s. Her paintings of this period reflect her responses to cubist, surrealist and abstract expressionist painting.

Untitled, 1959

Friendship, 1963 (gold leaf)

In the early 1960s, Martin's geometric compositions evolved into what would later be seen as her signature style: the square grid. Similar in size, the grids are made from lines intersecting at right angles, creating rectangular divisions within the square format. Referring to these paintings, the critic Lucy Lippard described them as 'legendary examples of an unrepetitive use of a repetitive medium'.

A Grey Stone, 1963

The Islands, Friendship and A Grey Stone, explore the aesthetic of the grid in different colours and forms.

Adventure, 1967, (acrylic paint and graphite on canvas)

She was always insistent about what meanings her paintings did and did not contain: they did not embrace ideas, and certainly not personal emotions or biographical elements. The paintings were the thing: the paintings and the sublime responses they engendered in the viewer.


White Stone, 1965 (oil paint and graphite on canvas)

Martin pencilled the grid in graphite or coloured pencil on painted canvas, blurring the distinction between painting and drawing.

Throughout adulthood, Martin suffered from schizophrenia. These quiet and serene paintings were in fact products of personal and spiritual struggle. In 1967 she sold her possessions and left New York which is where she was living at the time, embarking upon an 18-month journey around the U.S.A. and Canada in a pick-up truck and camper van. She abandoned art making for over five years. In 1968 she resettled in New Mexico, building an abode house and log studio on a remote mesa. She lived there alone and without modern conveniences for several years.

Untitled, 1974 (acrylic paint, graphite and gesso on canvas)

Artist Ann Wilson observed in 1974, 'the colour of Martin's work can be like the colour in rock at dawn, at noon, at sunset, depending upon where your perceptions are when you see'. Martin rarely departed from variations of diluted red, white and blue paint, applied with a soft brush onto a surface covered in acrylic gesso. When examined closely, the fine graphite or coloured pencil lines that divide the colour fields are visible. She used a metal ruler and masking tape to guide her hand in drawing her lines. Subtle irregularities in her pencil and the liquid pooling of the paint can be seen when the paintings are viewed close by.

Untitled, 1975

The Islands, 1979

In 1977, Martin began to make untitled grey paintings. Her interest in abstract compositions with grey paint was to continue until 1992. They range from light grey works with horizontal bands, which are clearly related to her pencilled works of the 1960s, to dark opaque paintings with fine stripes.

On a few occasions Martin designated a group of paintings as a series and specified that they should always be shown together. The Islands comprises twelve identically large square paintings in white acrylic paint and graphite. These paintings can be seen as her most silent works and invite concentrated looking over time in order to see their very fine lines and nuanced surfaces. They convey a contemplative quality.

Untitled, No. 10, 1995 (acrylic paint and graphite on canvas)

I love the Whole World, 2000 (acrylic paint and graphite on canvas)

Happy Holiday, 1999 (acrylic paint and graphite on canvas)


Untitled, 2002


Untitled, 2003. 

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