“Art work is a representation of our devotion to life.”
Born on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, Canada, Agnes Martin immigrated to the United States in 1932 in the hopes of becoming a teacher. After earning a degree in art education, she moved to the desert plains of Taos, New Mexico, where she made abstract paintings with organic forms, which attracted the attention of renowned New York gallerist Betty Parsons, who convinced the artist to join her roster and move to New York in 1957. There, Martin lived and worked on Coenties Slip, a street in Lower Manhattan, alongside a community of artists—including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman—who were all drawn to the area’s cheap rents, expansive loft spaces and proximity to the East River. Harbor Number 1 (1957), one of Martin’s earliest New York paintings, combines the geometric abstraction of her earlier Taos work with the newfound inspiration of the harbor landscape, evident in her choice of blue-gray palette.
Over the course of the next decade, Martin developed her signature format: six by six foot painted canvases, covered from edge to edge with meticulously penciled grids and finished with a thin layer of gesso. Though she often showed with other New York abstractionists, Martin’s focused pursuit charted new terrain that lay outside of both the broad gestural vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism and the systematic repetitions of Minimalism. Rather, her practice was tethered to spirituality and drew from a mix of Zen Buddhist and American Transcendentalist ideas. For Martin, painting was “a world without objects, without interruption… or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of … going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”
In 1967, at the height of her career, Martin faced the loss of her home to new development, the sudden death of her friend Ad Reinhardt, and the growing strain of mental illness; she left New York, and returned to Taos, where she abandoned painting, instead pursuing writing and meditation in isolation. Her return to painting in 1974 was marked by a subtle shift in style: no longer defined by the delicate graphite grid, compositions such as Untitled Number 5 (1975) display bolder geometric schemes—like distant relatives of her earliest works. In these late paintings, Martin evoked the warm palette of the arid desert landscape where she remained for the rest of her life.
Note: The opening quote is from an artist statement drafted in 1982 for the revised edition of Contemporary Artists (London: Macmillan, 1983), as quoted in Arne Glimcher, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (London: Phaidon, 2012), p. 141.
Jennifer Harris, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2016