Agnes Martin (by Angela Moll)

Agnes Martin: rectangular grids within a square format. Simple, direct, reductive. She does away with composition, focal points, value contrast and strong color.

A modest room on a New Mexican mesa, a ruler in hand, Agnes Martin relentlessly explores the grid. She draws repeating lines over the entire surface, delicate and often barely visible. She treats all areas equally, no emphasis or contrast distract the viewer from the patterns of perfection residing in the human mind.

Friendship (1963)

Agnes Martin. (American, born Canada. 1912-2004). Friendship. 1963. Incised gold leaf and gesso on canvas, 6′ 3″ x 6′ 3″ (190.5 x 190.5 cm). Fractional gift of Celeste and Armand P. Bartos. © 2008 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Agnes Martin blends Platonic ideals and Taoist reflections in an attempt to convey the innocence of an untroubled state of mind: “My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.”

I am fascinated by the consistency between her art and her life. After some ten years immersed in the New York art scene, just at the point were she was tasting success, she took off and stopped painting. She spent some time wandering around the country in a pick-up truck with a camper until she settled on an isolated mesa in New Mexico and proceeded to build herself an adobe house. By hand, brick by brick, another way to explore the grid. She also wrote. After a seven year hiatus, she went back to her art practice and worked everyday in her New Mexican studio for the rest of her life. Living alone, in spare physical surroundings, with minimal distractions, the better to devote herself to her art. “I suggest to artists,” she wrote, “that you take every opportunity of being alone.”

The Tree (1964)

Agnes Martin. (American, born Canada. 1912-2004). The Tree. 1964. Oil and pencil on canvas, 6 x 6′ (182.8 x 182.8 cm). Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund. © 2008 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In spite of her chosen isolation, Agnes Martin became one of the leading contemporary artists in 20th-century America. She is often considered an early minimalist but she preferred to identify with the abstract expressionism of her generation. The strong spiritual component of her vision as well as her tendency to cover the surface of the canvas edge to edge are indeed closely related to abstract expressionists concerns.

A few links to explore Agnes Martin’s work further:


10 Responses to “Agnes Martin (by Angela Moll)”

  1. 1 Angela Moll April 14, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    Kate, you nailed it: the artwork is happening inside your mind. One can argue that there is were all art happens anyway, that artists just provide the stimulus for art to happen in our mind, but Martin’s work forces you to be aware of this. The room to breathe that Gabrielle mentions above allows us to be aware of how much in art is contributed by the viewer.

    Pam, me too. Even if the work is supposed to stand on its own.

  2. 2 Angela Moll April 14, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Gabrielle, room to breathe, exactly, that’s what attracts me to Martin’s work…

  3. 3 PaMdora April 13, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks Angela, for bringing this artist to my attention. I always find the art more compelling as I learn the story of the artist.

  4. 4 Kate Themel April 13, 2008 at 10:29 am

    I’ll admit it. When I viewed these paintings, at least at first, I did not get any kind of emotional kick at all. I had a similar experience in Art History class when studying the work of Minimalist painters of the 60’s and 70’s. It seemed to me that the only artwork taking place was inside my mind, because this stuff wasn’t doing anything.
    Okay, consider me slapped with a limp noodle.
    When I stopped to consider the fact that the artwork WAS INDEED going on in my mind, I had to stop and enjoy it. The light bulb went off “Eureka!” I looked at the images again, and imagined them taking up an entire wall. Then I imagined myself in the room with it and nothing else around. In fact I did feel a sense of peace; an escape from chaos. These pieces triggered my imagination and helped transport me to a little world of my own. What else could I ask for in a work of art?
    So now my attitude has been adjusted.
    I think the problem I had before was in looking at small pictures of this kind of work, whether in a text book or on line. The true impact can get lost. Only when I pictured myself in front of these, life sized, was I able to be “transported”. Thanks for the thought-provoking article, Angela!

  5. 5 Gabrielle Swain April 10, 2008 at 7:56 am

    Thanks Angela for bringing this thoughtful work to us. The idea of a quiet mind producing such evocative work is very appealing. Simplicity..ah, and room to breathe.

  6. 6 Angela Moll April 9, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Olga, emotionally charged intellectual pieces is a great way to describe them. I visited the MOMA and the Met in New York last week and looked for her paintings. It was not a good setting to see those pieces. Too much noise, people and visual distraction from other paintings hanging in those galleries. It made me realize how there is this mixture of strength and fragility in those canvases. The tremendous emotional kick you refer too is very vulnerable to the noise in the environment.

    Enjoy the links!

  7. 7 Olga April 9, 2008 at 2:02 am

    Thank you for this nudge. I know and like Agnes Martin’s work, but actually know very little about her and her thinking. I was interested to read in your piece that she said her pieces were about ‘what is known in the mind’. Intellectual pieces which have a tremendous emotional kick. I’m now going to use your links to start my further exploration.

  8. 8 Angela Moll April 7, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    June, actually, the backgrounds have variation in them. They are both varied and uniform. The same thing with the lines, they are both varied and regular. What makes it look so even is that she treats all parts of the canvas equally, she doesn’t privilege any one part. Variation is evenly distributed as well as regularity. One corner of the canvas is just like any other corner, but you can see the trace of the human hand everywhere. The intensity of the line marking varies along the lines, the backgrounds are a little variegated, etc.
    It is an approach to composition more than a matter of precision in execution. Although she is indeed precise, you do need to get very close to perceive those variations.

    My feeling is that it makes sense to take her at face value and accept her alignment with abstract expressionism. If her exterior life offers any indication of her inner life, I can see how setting out to create a statement about her emotional and inner life would result in such minimalism. An uncluttered life can well lead to an uncluttered psyche and this to a minimalist expressionism.

    This last week in New York I did see both Martin’s and Rothko’s paintings, but not next to each other… It is hard in a museum gallery to really feel the impact of her paintings because of the interference introduced by the other pieces being exhibited, the public wandering about, and so on. I felt that I needed spareness of surroundings to be able to give those nuanced paintings their due.

  9. 9 June April 6, 2008 at 8:42 pm


    These are great images. I can only imagine what the originals — 6 feet plus squares — must look like — must feel like. And of course, the backgrounds had to be laid out perfectly evenly — or as perfectly as a human could manage. Gold leaf and gesso isn’t something I’ve ever had any experience with.

    One thing I find interesting in your analysis is the denial of conventional design elements in Martin’s work. “She does away with composition, focal points, value contrast and strong color.” I have seen something like this done in fiber and stitching, very small, but it had little of the impact that I feel in these pieces.

    I can’t help but think of her as a minimalist, in spite of her attachment to inner reality. It’s certainly an interesting combination of ideas — the minimal vision tied to the internal concept. Isolation became her — or at least seems to be integral to her work. The work feels singular, uncluttered by others, by messy relationships or human debris.

    I like thinking of her work and Rothko’s together — wouldn’t that be interesting?

  10. 10 Eric Hundin April 6, 2008 at 6:16 am

    I found your blog on MSN Search. Nice writing. I will check back to read more.

    Eric Hundin

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