Born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1912 to Scottish Presbyterians, Agnes Martin was brought up on a farm before her family moved to Vancouver. In 1931, she left for Washington State, USA, to help her pregnant sister, and finished her high school education there two years later. After training as a teacher Martin studied fine art and art education at Columbia University, New York. It was only when she was thirty years old that she decided to become an artist. She studied art at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, then returned to New York and enrolled in the Teachers College, Columbia University. Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki taught at the university and Martin soon became interested in East Asian philosophy. After receiving a Masters of Arts degree in 1952, she moved to the remote town of Taos, New Mexico. She taught art in schools and undertook a variety of other jobs in order to support her own painting.

Having painted naturalistic landscapes, still lifes and portraits as a student, Martin moved towards abstract forms in the 1950s. Her paintings of this period reflect her responses to cubist, surrealist and abstract expressionist painting. This room shows a selection of Martin’s early paintings and traces her journey from experiments with biomorphic forms towards formal abstraction.