For more than forty years, Agnes Martin (1912–2004) created serene paintings composed of grids and stripes. With an attention to the subtleties of line, surface, tone, and proportion, she varied these forms to generate a body of work impressive both in its intricacy and focus. Martin’s commitment to this spare style was informed by a belief in the transformative power of art, in its ability to conjure what she termed “abstract emotions”—happiness, love, and experiences of innocence, freedom, beauty, and perfection. This retrospective, her first comprehensive survey in over two decades, presents the scope of Martin’s output, including her biomorphic abstractions of the 1950s, signature grid and stripe compositions, and final paintings. Together these works trace Martin’s practice as she developed and refined a format to express her singular vision.
Born in 1912 in western Canada, Martin spent her childhood in Vancouver and on the open plains of Saskatchewan. In 1931 she immigrated to the United States and for several years moved often as she studied and worked as teacher. It was not until the age of thirty that she decided to become an artist. Living in New Mexico, Martin began producing abstracted portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, but as her work developed, she abandoned representational content and started painting biomorphic abstractions. In 1957 she moved to New York and joined a vibrant artistic circle. Her work soon became increasingly simplified and geometric, ultimately evolving into radical, innovative, and sometimes seemingly blank paintings made of penciled grids on large square canvases.
In 1967, as Martin’s acclaim was growing, she abruptly stopped making art and left New York. For the next year and a half, she traveled the United States and Canada before eventually settling on a remote mesa in New Mexico. It was another four years before she began working again. Unlike the first part of her career, during which she progressed through various modes of expression, Martin now focused on exploring the possibilities of her restrained style. She continued working in this manner until the final years of her life, when she reintroduced bold geometric forms into her paintings.
One of the few female artists who gained recognition in the male-dominated art world of the 1950s and ’60s, Martin is a pivotal figure between two of that era’s dominant movements: Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Her content—an expression of essential emotions—relates her to the earlier group, the Abstract Expressionists, but her methods—repetition, geometric compositions, and basic means—were adopted by the Minimalists, who came to prominence during the ’60s. Martin’s work, however, is more than a bridge between the two. It stands apart by never losing sight of the subjective while aspiring toward perfection. “I would like [my pictures] to represent beauty, innocence and happiness,” she said. “I would like them all to represent that. Exaltation.”
—Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, and Tiffany Bell, Guest Curator