In 1967, Agnes Martin packed her belongings, donated her paint brushes and canvases, and drove into the desert. She’d been living in New York City for a decade, illegally sharing an abandoned warehouse space with a group of other artists that included Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Although she’d achieved early critical and commercial success, the stress of city life was becoming overwhelming, so she simply left. It would be seven years before Martin started making art again, from her new home in New Mexico.
In the years since her 2004 death, Martin has continued to resonate with audiences. On a purely aesthetic level, her neutral palette punctuated by the palest of pastels is immediately gratifying. Beyond that, however, her preoccupation with eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism are as relevant now as they were 50 years ago. She channelled the ideas into her paintings, in which she aimed to capture universal human emotions and themes, particularly joy and happiness. For this reason, she always insisted her work fell under the banner of abstract expressionism, rather than the minimalist tag with which she was often associated.
In short, these are feelgood paintings; their seeming simplicity belies the complex thought and work behind them. Here are four of our favourites.
It’s often been noted that Martin’s early work seems so accomplished, it’s as though she sprung “fully formed” as an artist in the world. The truth is that she sought out, bought back and destroyed as many of her early paintings as she could, literally erasing them from record. By the time of her first brush with art-world fame in the late 1950s, she’d begun using a grid motif, hand-drawn with graphite, and often covering the entire surface of her large canvases. As in ‘Friendship’ from 1963, the colours were usually neutral – shades of black, white or brown. At first glance, it seems repetitive but a closer look is rewarded with minute variations across the surface: subtleties of shade, pockmarked smudges, even an errant hair or two stuck in the paint. Although she hated explanations of her work, preferring viewers to simply “feel” them, ‘Friendship’ seems to be a reminder of the beauty in consistency; a sense that companionship is a series of similar but different experiences, and that’s what makes it special.
‘This Rain’, 1960
Although she liked to work alone, Martin grew fond of giving lectures, particularly later in her life. And while she resisted explaining her work, she wrote enough about art, creativity and spirituality to fill a book (Agnes Martin: Writings, first published in 1998). The 1960 painting ‘This Rain’ was accompanied by a brief and beautiful poem about two lovers who became separated – one flew to the sky and the other plunged into the sea; it was only through the precipitation in the title that they were able to be reunited. The shimmering planes of colour in the picture, one a deep and dusty shade of indigo, the other soft and sandy, are exactly the same size and shape, to capture the lovers’ “equal hearts”.
Agnes Martin had a long history of subjecting herself to punishing situations. Her New York City loft had holes in the walls and no running water, and when she left, it was to build with her own bare hands an adobe hut in the remote reaches of the desert. Under the circumstances, it’s surprising to learn just how preoccupied she was with capturing feelings of true happiness and joy. She once told the New York Times: “People who look at my painting say that it makes them happy, like the feeling when you wake up in the morning. And happiness is the goal, isn't it?” After moving to New Mexico in the 1960s, Martin began to integrate more colour into her paintings, in particular a rainbow of washed-out pastel shades, like the seafoam and melon used in ‘Gratitude’. The tranquility of these shades is both calming and uplifting, a meditation on life itself.
‘Untitled 5’, 1998
The tranquility in Martin’s paintings gives no hint of the effort that went into each and every one of them. The artist always waited for inspiration to strike her, so she knew exactly what she would paint before she began (if the process didn’t go according to her internal plan, she’d slice up her canvas and throw it outside). To create the milky pastels in ‘Untitled 5’, she first sealed the canvas with a thick layer of white acrylic, then layered the stripes of lemon, duck-egg and peach on top. The final addition was a thin graphite line that separates each band of colour, always drawn by hand and showing the occasional wobble or smudge. In an interview, Agnes Martin’s long-time friend and biographer Arne Glimcher captured it perfectly when he said: “They are almost more like mantras than paintings — they have such a calming effect.”
Written by Michelle Bateman