The life of Agnes Martin

“There’s nothing that approximates the experience of seeing it in person,”
says curator Tracey Bashkoff of the Guggenheim Museum – she is referring to the most extensive retrospective of Agnes Martin’s work ever exhibited – currently on show at the Guggenheim.  

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Agnes Martin, Gratitude, 2001. (© 2015 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society) Agnes Martin, Gratitude, 2001. (© 2015 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society)
Agnes Martin, Buds, ca. 1959. (© 2015 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society) Agnes Martin, Buds, ca. 1959. (© 2015 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society)

Agnes Martin born in 1912 was raised by her grandfather and single-mother in rural Canada along with her four siblings; she might as well have had a career as a professional swimmer.  A part of the school’s athletic team and excelling particularly in swimming-  rumor has it Martin was in fact eligible for the Canadian Olympic swimming team, yet was deemed too young to compete at that stage. Nonetheless, the rigour and discipline she obtained through these early days stayed with Martin. One might suspect that the years of  requisite solitude as diligent swimmer combined with the strenuous relationship to her mother entailed austere and solitary confinement that outlined most of Martin’s adult life – The combination of the two has subsequently been ascribed for certain self-reliance Agnes Martin became infamous for.
Earning several educational degrees from a handful of universities and simultaneously undertaking a myriad of variable jobs in order to make a living Agnes’ art career enjoyed a late start. Around the time when most of her female contemporaries would traditionally take a compliant place in the household. In 1952 Martin completed her Masters in New York, taking residence in Lower Manhattan at Coenties Slip which turned out to be the area-of-choice for many young artists set on differentiating themselves – among them Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly. By the time she was singled out by Betty Parsons – one of New York’s most prominent art dealers – Martin was in her mid 40’s, her first solo show taking place in 1958.

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2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
A kindred spirit with Abstract Expressionists, her ethos was albeit emblematic of the Minimalist movement. Martin’s work didn’t fit solely under the category of one of these movements and is historically considered a bridge between the two.  
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Earning several educational degrees from a handful of universities and simultaneously undertaking a myriad of variable jobs in order to make a living Agnes’ art career enjoyed a late start. Around the time when most of her female contemporaries would traditionally take a compliant place in the household. In 1952 Martin completed her Masters in New York, taking residence in Lower Manhattan at Coenties Slip which turned out to be the area-of-choice for many young artists set on differentiating themselves – among them Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly. By the time she was singled out by Betty Parsons – one of New York’s most prominent art dealers – Martin was in her mid 40’s, her first solo show taking place in 1958.
Rooted in Martin’s own belief in art is a concrete representation of one’s most subtle feelings and her work become quickly lauded for the ability to conjure abstract emotions within the observer. In the early beginnings of her career Martin struggled to obtain a specific style.  A kindred spirit with Abstract Expressionists, her ethos was albeit emblematic of the Minimalist movement. Martin’s work didn’t fit solely under the category of one of these movements and is historically considered a bridge between the two.  

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Agnes Martin, Untitled, ca. 1957. (© 2015 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society) Agnes Martin, Untitled, ca. 1957. (© 2015 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society)
Alexander Liberman, Agnes Martin with level and ladder, 1960. (© J. Paul Getty Trust) Alexander Liberman, Agnes Martin with level and ladder, 1960. (© J. Paul Getty Trust)

It was when Martin started examining the notion of space, metaphysics and emotion that she first discovered ‘the grid’. Exploring the possibilities of the otherwise restrained style of the Minimalist movement, Martin has achieved a hypnotic rhythm to her work.  “My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.” Martin said. Ascetic, fragile and endlessly compelling, the sparse canvases and limited use of colour palette pulse with life both rigorous and astonishingly advanced whilst repetitive patterns render a contemplative harmony. Through variation of intricacy and focus, the subtleties of line, tone and proportion, incline towards a geometric vocabulary, adequately unfolding into a spatial language that defined Martin’s oeuvre. The language is albeit devoid of intellectual context and narrative and it translates to being vernacular and universal. 

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Ultimately the transcendent beauty of Martin’s work is in the meditative joy it provides.
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Therefore one might just have to read between the lines in an effort to pull back from the recurring theme of rigour and discipline and uncover the positive side of life Agnes Martin ultimately exemplifies.

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