Agnes Martin

Untitled #5


Agnes Martin 1912–2004
Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas
Support: 1525 × 1528 × 35 mm
frame: 1562 × 1562 × 48 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


Untitled #5 is a large abstract painting on canvas by the Canadian–American artist Agnes Martin, signed and inscribed by the artist on its verso. The square pictorial field is divided into eleven horizontal bands of white, blue and peach acrylic paint. The colours alternate in a regular pattern and the divisions are demarcated by wavering graphite pencil lines. As with all works from this period by Martin, Untitled #5 was begun by priming the entire surface of the canvas with an opaque coating of white acrylic gesso, which is never fully covered by subsequent layers of colour. This gives the painting a visual sparseness and vibrant luminosity; the thick white gesso sealing and emphasising the slightly toothy texture of the linen canvas support. On top of this base coat of paint the artist measured out and marked with pencil rectangular bands across the width of the canvas, into which she painted alternating duck-egg blue and pale peach ‘salmon-brick’ colours using a different type of acrylic, Liquitex, which gives a translucent and tempera-like finish. These same colours appear in the later paintings Faraway Love 1999 (Tate AR00178) and Happy Holiday 1999 (Tate AR00179), but in Untitled #5 they are applied with lighter, looser brush strokes and the Liquitex was diluted to produce almost gestural veils of colour. Within the composition’s repeating horizontals, the three bands left empty of colour are also the widest, at approximately one and a half times the width of the peach and blue bands. This irregularity reinforces the white gesso’s role as a blank background onto which colours and pencil marks have been inscribed. The painting was completed by further reinforcement of the pencil lines demarcating the striped surface of the canvas. By drawing on top of the acrylic paints, Martin reverses the traditional notion of drawing as preparatory work to be painted over. These strong, persistent horizontal lines are the final addition to the work, and are drawn so as not to reach the edge of the canvas, creating the impression that they are floating across the colour field. Explaining her drawing technique, the artist stated in an interview with the critic Joan Simon that:

I use a small ruler, 18 inches long, and draft-draw across the canvas … because 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.’
(Simon 1996, p.84.)

This shuddering, incremental approach to delineation emphasises the centrality of drawing to Martin’s painting practice. The type of line produced by the artist is not rigidly straight; despite her use of a ruler it exhibits an undeniably hand-drawn quality. In its tracing of the bumps of the canvas surface, it echoes the looseness of the brush strokes of acrylic. As the art historian and curator Ned Rifkin has articulated of these works: ‘Geometry is an abstract system of order concerned with the relation between shapes. It is also an ideal. It refers to a perfection of form that does not actually exist within the natural world. In contrast, the rectangles Martin describes within the square format of her canvases are irregular and imperfect.’ (Rifkin 2002, pp.25–6.)

Untitled #5 was first exhibited in 1995 at PaceWildenstein Gallery in New York. It is part of the first series of paintings the artist produced after moving from the remote area of Galisteo, New Mexico to a new studio and home in the town of Taos, where she remained until her death in 2004 at the age of ninety-two. This series of untitled paintings also introduced a new format into Martin’s work: five–foot square canvases, a reduction from her signature six–foot square stretchers, which the artist could no longer handle easily. Within the artist’s extremely spare and coherent painting vocabulary, Martin had employed the six–foot format since 1960, as the basis of all–over grid works such as Morning 1965 (Tate T01866). Ned Rifkin has remarked that ‘this seemingly slight change has introduced a new intimacy of scale and simultaneously opened her work to a decidedly more lyrical tone in colour and feeling.’ (Rifkin 2002, p.26.)

In contrast to other paintings by Martin in the ARTIST ROOMS collection, the series to which Untitled #5 belongs was left untitled and numbered sequentially. In subsequent years, the artist began using emotive and poetic phrases to title her works, such as Faraway Love and Happy Holiday, that are subtly evocative of her natural world–inspired titles from the 1960s, such as Leaf, Milk River and White Flower. Indeed, while the 1990s work remains resolutely abstract, the fundamental qualities of her chosen surroundings certainly impact upon paintings such as Untitled #5. In her prose poem of 1973 entitled ‘The Untroubled Mind’, the artist wrote:

I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought
the plain had it
just the plane
If you draw a diagonal, that’s loose at both ends
I don’t like circles – too expanding
When I draw horizontals
you see this big plane and you have certain feelings like
you’re expanding over the plane
Anything can be painted without representation.
(Quoted in Schwarz 1991, p.37.)

Further reading
Dieter Schwarz (ed.), Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, Ostfildern 1991.
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.
Ned Rifkin, Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond, exhibition catalogue, The Menil Collection, Houston 2002.

Stephanie Straine
August 2010

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Online caption

Agnes Martin has described her paintings as being about “light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness'” The horizontal lines of delicate colour with pencil outlines seen in this painting are typical of Martin's work. The bands were painted vertically to allow the paint to run down the length of the stripe, and the paintings were turned horizontally when finished. Although the painting is a metre and a half square, the artist used an eighteen inch ruler to draw the pencil lines, moving it across the width of the painting. This allows the artist's hand to be clearly seen, and on viewing the work closely, the irregularity of the pencil lines is evident.

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