Agnes Martin

Untitled #5

1991

Artist
Agnes Martin 1912–2004
Medium
Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1829 x 1829 mm
Acquisition
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Milly and Arne Glimcher in honour of Anthony d'Offay and ARTIST ROOMS 2012
Reference
T13717

Not on display

Summary

Untitled #5 is an abstract painting by the Canadian-American artist Agnes Martin. This six-foot square canvas is painted with four equidistant horizontal stripes in dark grey on a light grey background. The paint is opaque, and there are slight variations in tone visible in the darker bands. The brushstrokes are just visible and run horizontally across the canvas. Up close, minor imperfections at the edges of each stripe are visible.

Martin started this painting by priming the canvas in acrylic gesso, and then measured out the divisions of the stripes, using a small ruler to draw horizontal pencil lines across the canvas. She used masking tape to get a crisp edge to each stripe, painted using undiluted grey acrylic paint. Earlier in her career Martin used oil paints, but by 1966 she was using acrylics almost exclusively, favouring Liquitex – the first commercially produced water-based acrylic emulsion available in the United States – for its matte translucent finish. The artist applied the colour in vertical stripes in order to prevent the paint from dripping outside the lines of the stripes, before rotating the canvas by ninety degrees once the paint was dry.

Martin first began to produce grey abstract paintings when she moved to Galisteo, New Mexico, in 1977 and continued creating such works, among others, until 1992 (the year before she left Galisteo for Taos), making Untitled #5 one of her last paintings of this kind. She once said to her close friend and gallerist, Arne Glimcher, that she felt that her grey paintings were ‘absolutely unattractive but effective’ (quoted in Glimcher 2012, p.117).

This work is also one of the last six-foot-square format paintings Martin made before she moved to a five-foot-square format in 1993, the larger size becoming increasingly difficult to manoeuvre for an artist in her eighties. The six-foot-square format appealed to Martin for its enveloping relationship with the body. She said: ‘I just think it’s a good size because it’s as big as everybody, you know, you can just feel like stepping into it. It has to do with being the full size of the human body’ (quoted in Campbell 1989, p.17). The use of the large canvas size was something Martin shared with abstract expressionist painters such as Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock, who also valued its immersive quality. Despite her self-proclaimed ties with abstract expressionism, Martin’s work evidently lacks the broad expressive brushstrokes of painters such as Pollock. Her work has been likened to minimalism, a movement with which the artist exhibited in the 1960s. However, unlike minimalist artists (such as Donald Judd or Dan Flavin) who used industrial techniques and commercially available materials, Martin maintained a rigorously handmade quality in her work. Rather than belonging exclusively to a single movement, then, Martin associated with multiple movements, arriving at a unique style that endured into her late career, as seen in Untitled #5.

Martin described the way in which she had ‘inspirations’ which elicited the creation of each new work of art. Seeing the finished painting in her mind’s eye, Martin would then translate this vision into reality, methodically measuring out the divisions of the canvas as she had seen them (Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, London 2015, p.93). However, as she said, ‘we can see perfectly, but we cannot do perfectly’, so that while the ‘inspiration’ was perfect, the final painting always contained the slight imperfections – wavering pencil lines, paint bleed – brought about by the human hand (Dieter Schwarz (ed.), Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, Winterthur 1991, p.32). Martin aimed at perfection in the full knowledge that she could not achieve it. As she explained: ‘I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect – completely removed in fact – even as we ourselves are’ (quoted in Schwarz 1991, p.15).

Further reading
Suzan Campbell, ‘Oral history interview with Agnes Martin’, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 15 May 1989, pp.1–36, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections%20/interviews/oral-history-interview-agnes-martin-13296, accessed 2 December 2015.
Arne Glimcher, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, London and New York 2012.
Frances Morris (ed.), Agnes Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2015, reproduced p.163.

Ruth Burgon
University of Edinburgh
December 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.