The painter Agnes Martin did not consider herself a minimalist, though she has been called one countless times. She saw minimalists as too interested in appearances and ideas, less interested in expression. When the writer and curator Joan Simon visited Martin’s Taos, New Mexico, studio in 1995, the then-83-year-old artist explained further: “The Minimalists… just recorded beauty, I guess, without emotion — or at least without personal emotions.” Her work, she continued, was indeed personal and emotional, and she loved artists like Pollock who “ran around and dripped” and let his “ecstasy” show. She, however, never indulged the stray drip, or allowed a canvas that failed to meet her exacting standards to survive. She painted grids and lines, again and again, until they became her own perfect language. Born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1912, Martin traveled throughout Washington State, New Mexico and New York to study art and teach. She lived and painted in New York City for over a decade but then settled outside of Taos, where she made the majority of her immaculately considered paintings. The following five works offer a glimpse into her long life in the studio.
Martin had entered her 40s by the time she discovered the grid, the pattern that defined her career. She was living in New Mexico, painting biomorphic landscapes in muted colors, when dealer Betty Parsons saw her work, and offered her an exhibition. In 1957, Martin returned to New York City, moving into a studio without running water on Coenties Slip, an inlet in the East River near downtown. She made “Window”that same year, painting four intentionally imperfect floating blocks of color — two gray and two beige — framed by white-painted canvas. Since the squares still seemed more like objects framed by a sea of white than pure abstractions, the painting served as something of a bridge between her former biomorphic experiments and her future work.
At once an anomaly and a perfect example of Martin’s precision, “Friendship” incorporates gold leaf into an expansive, simple grid. Martin rarely used materials as literally shimmering and exotic as gold leaf, papery sheets made of hammered-flat gold particles, yet this was an extreme period of her life. Her star in the New York art scene kept rising, and as it did, her grip on reality slipped. Friends recall her repeat psychiatric hospitalizations and the winter she fell into a trance after listening to Handel’s Messiah at a second street church. She left the city in the late 1960s, traveling nomadically around the Pacific Northwest before settling once again near Taos.
Martin left the grid behind, at least for a time, after returning to Taos. Instead, she embraced vertical and horizontal line and pigments the critic Terry Castle once called “sippy cup colors.” She made this modest, untitled watercolor in 1978, its colors muted but essential and the lines ethereally light. She used to muse about all the horizontal lines in the desert, or about whether the landscape really included lines at all.
With My Back to the World (1997)
Part of a series of six quite similar paintings, “With My Back to the World,”reflected, through its title, Martin’s hermetic worldview. Now in her mid-80s, she had lived in near-solitude in the desert for decades by this point. And yet the pastel palette expressed a welcoming sweetness, inviting her viewers in even as the work’s title implied her rejection of civilization. Filmmaker Mary Lance made a documentary about Martin, named after this series, in 2002. In it, Martin offers cryptic, thoughtful comments about art and artmaking (for instance, “I’m very careful not to have ideas”).
By the early 2000s, Marin, entering her 90s, could no longer manage to destroy unsatisfactory canvases herself (because her destructive habit, hardly any of her early biomorphic paintings still exist). She enlisted her friend and dealer Arne Glimcher to help her in 2004, asking him to cut up certain canvases into thin unusable strips. Doing this pained him, especially as she had returned to a gray, austere palette reminiscent of the one she used in the 1950s and 1960s. Her work had come full circle. This painting, her last known work made the year of her death, survived her late-in-life edits.