Collection 1940s–1970s

Agnes Martin. Friendship. 1963 494

Gold leaf and oil on canvas, 6' 3" x 6' 3" (190.5 x 190.5 cm). Gift of Celeste and Armand P. Bartos. © 2021 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Conservator, Corey D’Augustine: Let's take a look at a 1963 canvas by Agnes Martin. This painting is called Friendship. And in a way, this is a real outlier in her career. Since she's using some materials and particularly some techniques that are very rare in the rest of her body of work. One thing that you should note is that this gold is incredibly thin, but it's still gold. So certainly not a small cost to an artist working in the 1960s before her market had really taken off.

Sgraffito is this scratching technique to reveal an underlying layer. She's put the gold leaf on top, allowed that to dry for a day or so. And then she scratched back into that gold to reveal the underlying red. So this red material that looks a lot like bole. Bole in fact is an under layer in traditional water gilding technique. The kind of technique that you may find on say, an early Italian panel painting. So traditionally, bole is this red clay material in fact that's exactly this color red. Now Martin is using that same gold leaf but that red underneath is actually just oil paint. So she's using oil gilding technique here, and she's just chosen that color to make it look very much like traditional water gilding technique. So using the appearance of something from the Renaissance but in fact what we're looking at here is a 1963 spin on that kind of idea.

She's very likely using a ruler and some kind of a metal tool to chisel off the gold surface, leaving these deep scratches that are really composing this grid here. We can see all of these little nooks and crannies that are being cut out by Martin's tool here. And to my eye, it's a beautifully uneven surface because as our eye roams around this canvas, we find some areas that are really attracting our eye with all of this literally glittering gold. And at other times, this dull mottled surface, so we have this interaction with the eye, a push and pull, if you will. But of course, as in all of Martin's works, we do not find any kind of perfect line here. All of these angles are slightly off, and we see some little hops and skips of her scalpel or whatever metal tool that she's using to score back into the surface. And there's this interesting tension.

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