Who is Agnes Martin?

Agnes Martin photographed in her studio by Mildred Tolbert c. 1955
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© the Mildred Tolbert Archive 

 Collection of the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos

Who is she?

Agnes Martin was an American painter who was born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912, but became a US citizen in 1940.

In a career spanning five decades, Martin became known for her square canvasses, meticulously rendered grids and repeat stripes, though this exhibition will also present her lesser-known early works, experiments with mixed media, and works on paper. Martin thought of her works as studies in the pursuit of perfection.

When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.
Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin, ‘Happy Holiday’ 1999
Agnes Martin
Happy Holiday 1999
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© estate of Agnes Martin

Who were her peers?

Martin spent many years working in New York, where she was a contemporary of artists such as Sol LeWitt, Ann Truitt, Donald Judd and Ad Reinhardt – with whom she was close friends. In 1967, shortly after Reinhardt died, Martin left the city, and gave up painting in order to travel across North America, during which time she continued her investigations in to Buddhism and meditation. She wished to experience true solitude, and used this period of quiet reflection to produce some of her most significant writing, whilst situated in sparsely populated and remote areas of the United States and Canada. In 1968 Martin resettled in New Mexico and began building an adobe and log house in a remote mesa. She lived there alone and without modern conveniences for several years. in 1973 she began creating work again.

What are her key works?

Agnes Martin The Garden 1958
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© Estate of Agnes Martin/DACS, London, 2015

 Des Moines Art Center, Iowa

Agnes Martin Untitled_Study for The Egg
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© Estate of Agnes Martin/DACS, London, 2015

 Private collection, Switzerland

Agnes Martin, ‘Morning’ 1965
Agnes Martin
Morning 1965
Tate
© Estate of Agnes Martin / DACS, 2017

Tate acquired Agnes Martin’s Morning 1965 in 1974, and since then, a further five works were added to the collection, three of which were jointly acquired with National Galleries of Scotland through the d’Offay Donation and ARTIST ROOMS.

On a Clear Day 1973, was produced by Martin several years after she settled in New Mexico, comprising 30 screenprints on paper, that will be shown in their entirety in the exhibition.

Agnes Martin Friendship 1963
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Museum of Modern Art, New York

What is her legacy?

Agnes Martin’s influence reaches globally, and plays a hugely significant role in 20th Century art history. Whilst known as a pioneer of abstract painting, her work as well as her reclusive lifestyle have served as an inspiration to creative practitioners in diverse disciplines. Painters, photographers, writers – and many devotees from the words of fashion, architecture and graphic design revisit and rephrase her perspectival studies and fascination with geometery, the legacy of which can be seen in investigations in to brevity of line and muted colour palettes. Artists such as Richard TuttleEllen Gallagher and Roni Horn cite Martin as a central figure in their research and practice.

Agnes Martin Untitled 1965
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© Estate of Agnes Martin/DACS, London, 2015

Quotes

Agnes Martin quote
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Agnes Martin quote
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Agnes Martin quote
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Agnes Martin quote
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When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in my mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.

We see everything in its perfection. We say a new born baby is beautiful and when we enter a forest we do not see the falling trees and the rotting leaves. We see the perfection and we are inspired. We even hear a silence in the forest that is not really silence.

To progress in life you must give up the things that you do not like. Give up doing the things that you do not like to do. You must find the things that you do like. The things that are acceptable to your mind.
Agnes Martin

What do the critics say?

It is striking that Martin does not draw a distinction between drawing and painting. On the contrary, she collapses it. The distinction instead is in her use of scale.
Briony Fer

Form in an artist like Martin strikes us as timeless because of its simplicity of form, and yet altogether intricate because of what we sense has just happened

Charles Molesworth

Agnes Martin Untitled 1959 colour band
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© Estate of Agnes Martin/DACS, London, 1915

Briony Fer, ‘Drawing Drawing: Agnes Martin’s Infinity’ in Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher (eds.), Women Artists at the Millennium, New Haven and London 2006,pp.168–87.

Charles Molesworth, ‘Tears and Painting: Giotto and Agnes Martin’, Salmagundi, Spring 2010, 166/167, pp.10–20.

See also

Tate Modern Exhibition

Agnes Martin

3 Jun – 11 Oct 2015
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