Case Study : Agnes Martin

"It took me 20 years to paint completely non-objective, not about this world… I can remember every day I got a little more abstract and finally I was thinking about innocence, the innocence of trees, it’s quite easy to be innocent if you're a tree. And in my mind there came a grid with lines this way and that, and I thought, am I supposed to paint that, no one will think it’s a painting, but at least it’s non-objective, completely abstract, so I painted it 6 foot square."1
Agnes Martin

When viewing an Agnes Martin’s painting from a distance, you see an illuminating field of color or tone, and as you move in closer, horizontal and straight lines appear in a repetitive all over geometric pattern. If the viewer is patient and continues absorbing the surface, the seemingly mechanical grid reveals their hand drawn imperfections along with variations in color, line, shade, value and even the sensitivity of touch by the Martin's hand on the rough gessoed canvas. Her lines beg to be redrawn mentally, unlocking the creator within the viewer while reading Martin’s carefully pulled pencil as it skims the textured surface of the stretched canvas, yielding an acute awareness of time as it passes in the present along side the historic time Martin spent in the studio making the work.

Agnes Martin’s paintings unravel over time and explore the perceptual field of abstraction. Her hand drawn graphite lines on large canvases are evocative of quietude, contentment and strength. They defy the definitions of grids as being without narrative or metaphysical connection. For this case study I will research how Agnes Martin’s grid paintings create a contradiction between the values of logic and science with those of symbolism and spiritualism within the realm of modernity.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was born on a homestead in a remote part of Saskatchewan, Canada. After her father died, her family moved to Vancouver. Agnes Martin loved the water and was a competitive swimmer. She received her teaching certificate from Bellingham Washington and had a long interrupted career as a schoolteacher. By 1941 she realized she wanted to be an artist and attended the University of New Mexico and finished her art education at Columbia in 1951. During this time she became very interested in meditation, Buddhism and Zen teachings. She lived and worked in Taos until 1957 when art dealer Betty Parsons convinced her to return to New York. In New York, Martin moved into the Coenties Slip neighborhood where artists Ellsworth Kelly, Lenore Tawney, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Jack Youngerman and Robert Rauschenberg also resided. Martin became immersed in the studio practices of these artists. She was also part of a group of minimalists that included Sol LeWitt, Anne Truitt, Donald Judd, and Ad Reinhardt. In 1967 when Martin was gaining recognition for her art, she left New York, moved back to Taos and stopped painting for nearly a decade. (Later her battle with schizophrenia became know and many speculated her disease was the basis for her departure.)2 Martin not only practiced Buddhist beliefs she embodied it’s ego-less lifestyle. Like her sparce paintings reminiscent of the minimalist but with the expressionist hand drawn graphite line and painted washes, the adobe home she built for herself in Taos had only the minimum of comforts and was without electricty or plumbing. Once Martin resumed her studio practice, she painted daily up until her death at age 92.

Kasha Linville, beautifully describes Martin’s last painting during her New York period in the Art Forum Summer 1971 issue. “Tundra, the last painting she did before she stopped working and left New York, opened entirely new ground for her. She knew it but decided not to pursue it. (By one account, she said she had painted all the pictures she needed to and younger painters would paint works subsequent to Tundra for her.) Tundra is a simple, almost inexplicable canvas. Its surface is divided by three lines into six tall rectangles. The pattern reminds you of a window, but the surface is closed. It suggests the heavy, white jade blankness of a snow sky. The lines that divide it are dominant at close range, but something very peculiar happens as you move back from this canvas. Because the horizontally brushed, grayish wash on the surface stops near but not against the lines, they seem to have halos around them. These halos actually swallow the lines at middle distance, leaving only their white ghosts. Even the ghosts disappear eventually."3 The title Tundra means a vast, flat, treeless region in which the subsoil is permanently frozen. Similar to the terrain of Martin’s childhood Saskatchewan home bordering the Canadian Tundra. Martin's paintings are reminescent of open planes like those in Taos and Saskatchewan and oceans with endless horizons.

In the 20th Century the grid became the emblem of modernity. What may have begun in the work of artists like Mondrian as a response to Plato’s belief that art is an imitation or a copy of a copy of a form.4, and used in order to create something purely abstract and without references, went on to form the basis of cubism, abstraction and minimalism. Rosalind Krauss wrote in her essay on grids “It [the grid] is anti-natural, anti-mimetic, anti-real. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.” She goes on to state “The grid’s mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief.”5

Martins work was often shown with the minimalists though she thought of herself as an Abstract Expressionist. “Martin achieved an artistic style that fused universal order and symmetry with a profoundly beautiful, subjective, oscillating human touch.”6 The human touch is what set’s her work apart from the machine like hard edge of works by Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and other minimalists. It is also unlike the more ego centric work of the expressionists and likely falls somewhere between these two genres.

Agnes Martin followed her inspired vision and she used it as a guage to measure the success of her paintings and to edit out the painting that did not match this vision. “The bad paintings have to be painted and to the artist these are more valuable than those paintings later brought before the public. A work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present—at the slightest hint… the work is alive.”7 She waited for an inspiration to come to her and when the image came, she would sketch it out the size of a postage stamp and than mathematically scale it up onto a 5’ or 6’ square canvas. “She painted everyday and destroyed with a matt knife the ones she didn’t like. She could paint the same image over 10 times and destroy 9 of them.”8

In conclusion, the uniquely perceptual qualities of Agnes Martin’s work exemplifies Rosalind Krauss's statement that the grid in art creates an inherent paradox of conflicting values between logic and spiritualism. This conflict is compounded by Martin's austere and strictly imposed Buddhist minimalist lifestyle and ego-less, selfless embodiment of the those ideals. Adding a dimension that is felt through her meditative, rhythmic, repetitive and mantra like paintings. “I ask for inspiration. I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for… I think we don’t deserve any credit for the inspirations that comes to you and tells you what to do.”9 Like the frenetic actions felt when viewing a Jackson Pollock painting, these paintings contain and project the thoughts of innocence, boundless patience, devotion to her inspiration and the powerful conviction she embodied in her art practice and in her belief that “Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities that’s the function of art”10

”In our minds, there is awareness of perfection; When we look with our eyes we see it, … And then sometimes there are moments of perfection and in these moments we wonder why we ever thought life was difficult. We think that at last our feet are on the right path and that we will not falter or fail. We’re completely convinced we have the solution and then the moment is over.”11

1. ”Documentary “Between the Lines” about the painter Agnes Martin (trailer).” YouTube. March 08, 2016. Accessed December 09, 2017.

2. Nancy Princenthal, “Agnes Martin: Innocence the Hard Way – Talk at Tate Modern.” July 15, 2015. Accessed December 07, 2017.  1:28:55

3. Kasha Linville “Agnes Martin: An Appreciation by Kasha Linville.” Summer 1971. Accessed December 09, 2017.

4. “Plato.” Aesthetics - Plato’s Aesthetics. Accessed December 10, 2017.

5. Rosalind Krauss, “Grids.” October 9 (1979): 51-64. doi:10.2307/778321.

6. Peter Plagens, “‘Agnes Martin’ Review: The Essentials of a Minimalist Master.” Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2016.

7. Agnes Martin, Dieter Schwarz. Agnes Martin: writings ;. Winterthur: Kunstmuseum, 1991. pg 32

8. Arne Glimcher. “Agnes Martin: Arne Glimcher in conversation with Frances Morris.” Tate. April 17, 2013. Accessed December 10, 2017. 1:18:20

9. “Tate Shots | Agnes Martin” Vimeo. June 2015. Accessed December 6, 2017.

10. Agnes Martin, Writings pg 39

11. IBID pg 31