Agnes Martin is most famous for her abstract and evocative paintings featuring subtle pencil lines and pale color washes. Deeply influenced by Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Martin’s restrained style was underpinned by a profound conviction in the emotive and expressive power of art. She believed that spiritual inspiration- not intellect- created great work, seeking to capture not the material existence of life, but the abstract, intangible elements of humanity: joy, beauty, and happiness.
Born in rural Canada in 1912, Martin originally trained to be a teacher. In 1941, she moved to New York City and studied fine art at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Martin did not settle in the city, however, instead travelling between New York and New Mexico, as she gradually developed her style and vision as a painter. It was not until 1957, when she was ‘discovered’ by Betty Parsons, that she moved back. She established herself amongst a community of artists living in Coenties Slip along the East River in Lower Manhattan that included the likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana, and Ellsworth Kelly.
Her austere, geometric abstractions saw Martin labelled as a minimalist. However, some argue that her work is less rigid, less cerebral, and more spiritual in inspiration than Minimalism; indeed, at this time Martin regarded herself more as an Abstract Expressionist, taking as her subjects emotion and the human experience.
In 1967, just as her art was gaining acclaim, Martin abandoned the city and her art. Leaving her possessions and giving away her materials, for almost two years she travelled across the United States and Canada before finally settling in New Mexico. When she returned to painting in 1974, after a seven-year hiatus, horizontal bands of seemingly translucent color replaced her previous grids. For the rest of her life, Martin would create these transcendent, reductivist, abstract works.
Major exhibitions of Martin’s work have been held around the world, including at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1991); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1993); and Dia:Beacon, New York (2004). More recently, in 2015, a comprehensive survey of Martin’s work was held at Tate Modern, London, before travelling to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her work is held in many museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, and the Tate Gallery, London.
Agnes Martin died in Taos, New Mexico, in 2004.