Agnes Martin

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Agnes Martin
Born Agnes Bernice Martin
(1912-03-22)March 22, 1912
Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada
Died December 16, 2004(2004-12-16) (aged 92)
Taos, New Mexico, United States
Nationality American
Education Western Washington University
Teachers College, Columbia University
University of New Mexico
Known for Painting
Movement Abstract expressionism

Agnes Bernice Martin (March 22, 1912 – December 16, 2004) was an American abstract painter. Often referred to as a minimalist, Martin considered herself an abstract expressionist.[1][2] Her work has been defined as an "essay in discretion, inwardness and silence".[3]

She was awarded a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998.[4]

Personal life[edit]

Agnes Bernice Martin was born to Scottish Presbyterian farmers in Macklin, Saskatchewan, one of four children.[2][3][5] From age two, she grew up in Vancouver.[5] She moved to the United States in 1931 to help her married sister. She preferred American higher education and became an American citizen in 1940.[6] Martin studied at Western Washington University College of Education, Bellingham, Washington, prior to receiving her B.A. (1942) from Teachers College, Columbia University.[7] After hearing lectures by the Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki at Columbia, she became interested in Asian thought, not as a religious discipline, but as a code of ethics, a practical how-to for getting through life.[7] A few years following graduation, Martin matriculated at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where she also taught art courses before returning to Columbia University to earn her M.A. (1952).[8] She left New York City in 1967 and settled in Taos, New Mexico,[4] disappearing from the art world to live alone.[9] She built an adobe home for herself there. She lived alone all her adult life.[4] She was publicly known to have schizophrenia,[9] once opting for electric shock therapy for treatment.[3]

Despite her isolation and her reputation of being reclusive once she left New York City, many of her paintings bear very positive names such as “Happy Holiday” (1999) and “I Love the Whole World” (2000).[3] In an interview in 1989, discussing her life and her painting, Agnes Martin said, "Beauty and perfection are the same. They never occur without happiness."[2]

A pioneer of her time, Agnes Martin refrained from publicly expressing her feelings towards women but other artists knew she was a closeted homosexual.[10] She often employed an intersectional feminist lens when she critiqued fellow artists' work. Jaleh Mansoor, an art historian, states that Martin was "too engaged in a feminist relation to practice, perhaps, to objectify and label it as such".[11]


Her work is most closely associated with Taos,[12] with some of her early work visibly inspired by the desert environment of New Mexico.[3] She moved to New York City after being discovered by the artist/gallery owner Betty Parsons in 1957. That year, she settled in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan, where her friends and neighbors, several of whom were also affiliated with Parsons, included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman. Barnett Newman actively promoted Martin's work, and helped install Martin's exhibitions at Betty Parsons Gallery beginning in the late 1950s.[12] Another close friend and mentor was Ad Reinhardt.[13] In 1961 Martin contributed a brief introduction to a brochure for her friend Lenore Tawney's first solo exhibition, the only occasion on which she wrote on the work of a fellow artist.[14] In 1967, Reinhardt died and the studio at Coenties Slip was slated for demolition. After Martin left New York, she drove about the western US and Canada, deciding to settle in Cuba, New Mexico for a few years, then settled in Galisteo, New Mexico. In both New Mexico homes, she built adobe brick structures herself.[2] She did not paint for seven years and consciously distanced herself from the social life and social events that brought other artists into the public eye. She collaborated with architect Bill Katz in 1974 on a log cabin she would use as her studio.[15]

That same year, she completed a group of new paintings and from 1975 until her death exhibited regularly. According to a filmed interview with her which was released in 2003, she had moved from New York City only when she was told her rented loft/workspace/studio would be no longer available because of the building's imminent demolition. She went on further to state that she could not conceive of working in any other space in New York. When she died at age 92, she was said not to have read a newspaper for the last 50 years. Essays in the book dedicated to the exhibition of her work in New York at The Drawing Center (traveling to other museums as well) in 2005 – 3x abstraction – analyzed the spiritual dimension in Martin's work.[16]

The Agnes Martin estate is represented by Pace Gallery, New York.[17]

Artistic style[edit]

In addition to a couple of self-portraits and a few watercolor landscapes, Martin's early works included biomorphic paintings in subdued colors made when the artist had a grant to work in Taos between 1955 and 1957. However, she did her best to seek out and destroy paintings from the years when she was taking her first steps into abstraction.[13][18]

Martin praised Mark Rothko for having "reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth". Following his example Martin also pared down to the most reductive elements to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize transcendent reality.[19] Her signature style was defined by an emphasis upon line, grids, and fields of extremely subtle color. Particularly in her breakthrough years of the early 1960s, she created 6 × 6 foot square canvases that were covered in dense, minute and softly delineated graphite grids.[20] In the 1966 exhibition Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Martin's grids were therefore celebrated as examples of Minimalist art and were hung among works by artists including Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, and Donald Judd.[21] While minimalist in form, however, these paintings were quite different in spirit from those of her other minimalist counterparts, retaining small flaws and unmistakable traces of the artist's hand; she shied away from intellectualism, favoring the personal and spiritual. Her paintings, statements, and influential writings often reflected an interest in Eastern philosophy, especially Taoist. Because of her work's added spiritual dimension, which became more and more dominant after 1967, she preferred to be classified as an abstract expressionist.[1][2]

Martin worked only in black, white, and brown before moving to New Mexico. The last painting before she abandoned her career, and left New York in 1967, Trumpet, marked a departure in that the single rectangle evolved into an overall grid of rectangles. In this painting the rectangles were drawn in pencil over uneven washes of gray translucent paint.[22] In 1973, she returned to art making, and produced a portfolio of 30 serigraphs, On a Clear Day.[23] During her time in Taos, she introduced light pastel washes to her grids, colors that shimmered in the changing light.[24] Later, Martin reduced the scale of her signature 72 × 72 square paintings to 60 × 60 inches[25] and shifted her work to use bands of ethereal color.[26] Another departure was a modification, if not a refinement, of the grid structure, which Martin has used since the late 1950s. In Untitled No. 4 (1994), for example, one viewed the gentle striations of pencil line and primary color washes of diluted acrylic paint blended with gesso. The lines, which encompassed this painting, were not measured by a ruler, but rather intuitively marked by the artist.[25] In the 1990s, symmetry would often give way to varying widths of horizontal bands.


Since her first solo exhibition in 1958, Martin’s work has been the subject of more than 85 solo shows and two retrospectives including the survey, Agnes Martin, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, which later traveled to Jamaica (1992–94) and Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1874–1900 organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, with subsequent venues in France and Germany (1991–92). In 1998, The Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico mounted Agnes Martin Works on Paper. In 2002, the Menil Collection, Houston, mounted Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond. That same year, the Harwood Museum of Art at the University of New Mexico, Pandora, organized Agnes Martin: Paintings from 2001, as well as a symposium honoring Martin on the occasion of her 90th birthday.

Exhibitions continue to be mounted since her death in 2004, including Agnes Martin: Closing the Circle, Early and Late Feb 10, 2006 – Mar 04, 2006 at Pace Gallery.[18] Other exhibitions have been held in New York, Zurich, London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Cambridge (England), Aspen, Albuquerque, New Mexico and in Penticton, British Columbia in Canada.[27] In 2015, Tate Modern ran a retrospective of her life and career from the 1950s until her last work in 2004, which will travel to other museums after the show in London.[3][28]

In addition to participating in an international array of group exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale (1997, 1980, 1976), the Whitney Biennial (1995, 1977), and Documenta, Kassel, Germany (1972), Martin has been the recipient of multiple honors including the Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the Women’s Caucus for Art of the College Art Association (2005); Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1992);[29] the Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts given by Governor Gary Johnson, Santa Fe, New Mexico (1998); the National Medal of Arts[30] awarded by President Bill Clinton and the National Endowment for the Arts (1998); the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement by the College Art Association (1998); the Golden Lion for Contribution to Contemporary Art at the Venice Biennale (1997); the Oskar Kokoschka Prize awarded by the Austrian government (1992); the Alexej von Jawlensky Prize awarded by the city of Wiesbaden, Germany (1991); and election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York (1989).[31]


Martin's work can be found in major public collections in the United States, including the New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, NM; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; The Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; The Menil Collection, Houston, TX; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others. Her work is on "long-term view" and part of the permanent holdings of Dia Art Foundation, Beacon, New York.[18]

International holdings of Martin's work include the Tate, London and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden.[28][1]


Martin became an inspiration to younger artists, from Eva Hesse to Ellen Gallagher.[32]

In 1994, the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, part of the University of New Mexico announced that it would renovate its Pueblo-revival building and dedicate one wing to Martin's work.[33] The gallery was designed according to the artist's wishes in order to accommodate Martin's gift of seven large untitled paintings made between 1993 and 1994.[34] An Albuquerque architectural firm, Kells & Craig, designed the octagonal gallery with an oculus installed overhead, and four yellow Donald Judd benches placed directly under the oculus.[35][36] The gift of the paintings and gallery's design and construction were negotiated and overseen by Robert M. Ellis, the Harwood's director at the time and a close friend of Martin's. Today, the Agnes Martin Gallery attracts visitors from all over the world and has been compared by scholars to the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (Matisse Chapel), Corbusier's Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, and the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Art market[edit]

In 2007, Martin's Loving Love (2000) was sold for $2.95 million at Christie's, New York.[20] In 2015, Untitled #7 (1984), a white acrylic painting with geometric pencil lines, sold for $4.2 million at Phillips in New York.[37]

In popular culture[edit]

Composer John Zorn's Redbird (1995) was inspired by and dedicated to Martin.[38]

Wendy Beckett, in her book American Masterpieces, said about Martin: "Agnes Martin often speaks of joy; she sees it as the desired condition of all life. Who would disagree with her?... No-one who has seriously spent time before an Agnes Martin, letting its peace communicate itself, receiving its inexplicable and ineffable happiness, has ever been disappointed. The work awes, not just with its delicacy, but with its vigor, and this power and visual interest is something that has to be experienced."[39]

Poet Hugh Behm-Steinberg's poem "Gridding, after some sentences by Agnes Martin" discusses patterns in the natural world, makes a parallel between writing and painting, and ends with a line about the poet's admiration of Martin's work.[40]

Her work inspired a Google doodle on the 102nd anniversary of her birth on March 22, 2014. The doodle takes color cues from Agnes Martin's late work which is marked by soft edges, muted colors and distinctly horizontal bands, turned to six vertical bars, one for each letter of the Google logo.[41]


  • Martin, Agnes (1991). Dieter Schwarz, Winterthur, ed. Writings / Schriften (English and German ed.). Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag. ISBN 3-89322-326-6. 
  • Martin, Agnes (1996). "The Untroubled Mind". In Stiles, Kristine; Selz, Peter. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 128–137. ISBN 0-520-20253-8. 


  1. ^ a b c "Exhibition folder: Agnes Martin". Stockholm: Magasin III: Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Oral history interview with Agnes Martin, 1989 May 15". Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Spence, Rachel (June 5, 2015). "Agnes Martin: the quiet American". Financial Times. ISSN 0307-1766. Retrieved October 5, 2015. (subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ a b c Schudel, Matt (December 18, 2004). "Influential Abstract Painter Agnes Martin Dies at 92". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b MoMA | The Collection | Agnes Martin. (American, born Canada. 1912–2004), Accessed March 28, 2011.
  6. ^ Collection Online | Agnes Martin, Accessed March 28, 2011.
  7. ^ a b Cotter, Holland (December 17, 2004). "Agnes Martin, Abstract Painter, Dies at 92". The New York Times. Retrieved November 25, 2011. 
  8. ^ Knight, Christopher (December 17, 2004). "Agnes Martin, 92; Abstract Painter Won the Golden Lion". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 25, 2011. 
  9. ^ a b Porter, Charlie (May 22, 2015). "Pretty as a picture". Financial Times. ISSN 0307-1766. Retrieved October 5, 2015. (subscription required (help)). 
  10. ^ Fiske, Courtney. "Agnes Martin". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  11. ^ Schiff, Karen L. (March 4, 2013). "Agnes Martin, Under New Auspices". Art Journal 71 (3): 121–125. 
  12. ^ a b Agnes Martin (November 12, 2008). "Starlight 1963, Lot Notes". Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale. New York: Christie's. Retrieved March 22, 2014. 
  13. ^ a b Ann Landi (March 13, 2012), Saved From the Artist's Fire Wall Street Journal.
  14. ^ "Agnes Martin Homage to Greece (1959)". Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale. New York: Christie's. May 11, 2011. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  15. ^ Bagley, Christopher (March 2008). "Perfect Vision". W Magazine. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  16. ^ de Zegher, Catherine; Telcher, Hendel, eds. (2005). 3 X Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing, Hilma Af Klint, Emma Kunz, Agnes Martin. The Drawing Center (Yale University Press). ISBN 978-0300108262. Published on the occasion of the exhibition 3 x abstraction: new methods of drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin ; Organized by the Drawing Center ; The Drawing Center, New York, NY, March 19-May, 21, 2005, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA, June 10-August, 13, 2005, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, January 24-March 26, 2006. 
  17. ^ "Agnes Martin". New York: Pace Gallery. 2015. Retrieved 6 October 2015. 
  18. ^ a b c "Agnes Martin: Closing the Circle, Early and Late". Pace Gallery. February 10, 2006. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  19. ^ "Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (1989)". Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale. New York: Christie's. November 12, 2008. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  20. ^ a b "Agnes Martin, Loving Love (2000)". Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale. New York: Christie's. November 13, 2007. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  21. ^ Alloway, Lawrence (1966). "Systemic Painting: Catalogue for the Exhibition". New York: Guggenheim Museum. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  22. ^ "Agnes Martin: Five Decades, February 20 – April 26, 2003". New York: Zwirner & Wirth Gallery. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  23. ^ "Agnes Martin 1912 - 2004". Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  24. ^ "Exhibition: Agnes Martin long term view". New York: Dia Art Foundation. Retrieved March 28, 2011. 
  25. ^ a b "Agnes Martin Untitled No. 4 (1994)". Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale. New York: Christie's. May 14, 2002. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  26. ^ Alley, Ronald (1981). "Agnes Martin 1912–2004: Artist biography". Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists. London. p. 488. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  27. ^ "Agnes Martin: Selected One-Artist Exhibitions". Biographical documents. Pace Gallery. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  28. ^ a b Cooke, Rachel (June 7, 2015). "Agnes Martin review – beauty and steeliness". The Guardian. Retrieved October 6, 2015. 
  29. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014. 
  30. ^ Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts, Accessed March 28, 2011.
  31. ^ "Deceased Members: Agnes Martin". Retrieved March 23, 2014. 
  32. ^ Holland Cotter (December 17, 2004). "Agnes Martin, Abstract Painter, Dies at 92". New York Times. Retrieved March 23, 2014. 
  33. ^ Carol Vogel (September 23, 1994), The Agnes Martin Wing New York Times.
  34. ^ "Agnes Martin Gallery, The Harwood Museum of Art, University of New Mexico". Taos, NM: Retrieved March 28, 2011. 
  35. ^ "Can you help me understand the Agnes Martin Gallery?". Taos, NM: Harwood Museum of Art. Retrieved March 23, 2014. 
  36. ^ "Harwood Museum". Kells + Craig Projects. Retrieved March 23, 2014. 
  37. ^ Katya Kazakina and James Tarmy (May 15, 2015), Art Market Reaches New Milestone With $2.7 Billion Sales Frenzy Bloomberg Business.
  38. ^ Tzadik catalogue
  39. ^ Beckett, Wendy (2000). Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces (1st American ed.). Mishawaka, Indiana, U.S.A.: DK. ISBN 978-0789459589. 
  40. ^ Behm-Steinberg, Hugh (2008). "Three Poems". EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts (Charles Alexander) (4). Retrieved March 23, 2011. 
  41. ^ Michael Cavna (March 22, 2014). "Agnes Martin: To celebrate the great painter, Google Doodle offers meditative muted beauty". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 25, 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brandauer, Aline, ed. (1999). Agnes Martin: Works on Paper. Lumen Books. ISBN 978-0936050249. 
  • Castle, Jack (June 2, 2015). "Philosopher, artist, pioneer, recluse". Art World News. Retrieved 2015-06-03.  An interview with Arne Glimcher.
  • Fer, Briony (2005). "Drawing Drawing: Agnes Martin's Infinity". In de Zegher, Catherine; Teicher, Hendel. 3x An Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300108262. 
    • Reprinted in Armstrong, Carol; de Zegher, Catherine, eds. (2006). Women Artists at the Millennium. October Books. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262012263. 
  • Glimcher, Arne (2012). Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances. 20th Century Living Masters. Phaidon Press. ISBN 978-0714859965. 
  • Haskell, Barbara (1992). Agnes Martin. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art. ISBN 978-0810968059. 
  • Krauss, Rosalind E. (1996). "Agnes Martin: The/Could/". In de Zegher, Catherine. Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art in, of, and From the Feminine (2nd ed.). MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262540810. 
  • Pollock, Griselda (2005). "Agnes Dreaming: Dreaming Agnes". In de Zegher, Catherine; Teicher, Hendel. 3x An Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300108262. 

External links[edit]