Agnes Martin

Untitled #10


Agnes Martin 1912–2004
Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas
Support: 1524 × 1524 mm
frame: 1545 × 1545 × 50 mm
Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010
On long term loan


Untitled #10 is an abstract painting by the Canadian-American artist Agnes Martin. This five-foot square canvas is painted with seven equally sized horizontal bands that alternate in colour from pale blue to pale peach, so that there are four blue bands and three peach bands. Graphite pencil lines demarcate the edges of each band, although they do not to reach the edges of the canvas. Horizontal brushstrokes are visible over the entire surface.

This painting was made in Martin’s studio in Taos, New Mexico, where she moved in 1993. As with all her works of this period, Martin created Untitled #10 by first priming the canvas with an opaque white acrylic gesso. She then carefully measured out the divisions of the bands and used a small eighteen-inch ruler to draw the horizontal pencil lines across the canvas. She explained that ‘using a big ruler to draw a line clear across the canvas is impossible. The canvas goes back just a little, and the line’s not straight’ (quoted in Simon 1996, p.84). The pale peach and blue bands were painted using very diluted acrylic paint and a four centimetre brush, as indicated by the width of the visible brushstrokes. 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 US. Acrylic dries much faster than oil and retains its colour in diluted form, qualities which Martin took advantage of, allowing the paint to dry between each layer that she added to build up the colour. Liquitex gives a translucent matte finish, which can be seen in Untitled #10. The artist applied the colour to the canvas in vertical stripes, subsequently rotating the canvas by ninety degrees once the paint was dry. She explained that ‘[y]ou can’t put it on horizontally. It would drip down’ (quoted in Simon 1996, p.84).

Up until 1993 Martin consistently used a six-foot-square format for her paintings (see, for example, Morning 1965, Tate T01866). This size appealed to her for its enveloping relationship with the viewer’s body: she saw it as ‘a size you can walk into’ (quoted Cooke 2011, p.105). However, this large format became increasingly difficult to handle and so in 1993 she shifted to a more practical five-foot-square format, as used for Untitled #10. This remained a large enough size for the painting to take up the majority of the viewer’s visual field when standing in front of it, allowing the eye to adjust to the visual sparseness and paleness of the painting without extraneous distraction.

Martin’s paintings are known for their subtle nuances of tonal variation and compositional effect. For example, viewers might notice the way in which the graphite lines do not quite reach the edge of the canvas, creating the impression that the stripes float across the visual field. In addition, the dilute application of the paint gives the surface a shimmering luminosity, as the colour appears to be veiled over the white background. The paleness of Untitled #10 also makes it particularly susceptible to light conditions, absorbing and reflecting light so that its surface is always subtly changing. Art historian Briony Fer has argued that ‘Martin’s paleness is her weapon of regeneration, just as Reinhardt’s weapon of negation was black’, so that whereas Martin’s contemporary, the American painter Ad Reinhardt, declared the end of painting with his stark black canvases, Martin declared its rebirth with her bright, pale paintings (Fer 2015, p.179).

Martin described the way in which she had ‘inspirations’ that catalysed 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’ (Dieter Schwarz (ed.), Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, Winterthur 1991, p.32), so that while the ‘inspiration’ was perfect, the final painting always contained slight imperfections – wavering pencil lines or pooled paint – brought about by the human hand. 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
Joan Simon, ‘Perfection is in the Mind: An Interview with Agnes Martin’, Art in America, vol.84, no.5, May 1996, pp.82–9, 124.
Lynne Cooke (ed.), Agnes Martin, New York 2011.
Briony Fer, ‘Who’s Afraid of Triangles?’ in Frances Morris (ed.), Agnes Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2015, pp.172–81, reproduced p.167.

Ruth Burgon
University of Edinburgh
January 2016

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Display caption

Martin used a short metal ruler and masking tape to create her lines. She applied the paint in vertical stripes, rotating the canvas by 90 degrees once the paint was dry. She explained that ‘you can’t put it on horizontally. It would drip down’. Despite her use of a ruler, the lines that Martin produced are not rigidly straight. They trace the texture of the linen canvas, creating an undeniably hand-drawn quality.

Gallery label, January 2020

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