Agnes Martin is one of my favourite artists and I was so excited to see her solo exhibition at Tate Modern. Her work is simple, beautiful, sometimes soft of palette, sometimes vibrant sea-blue, and at other times stark and black. Always spare, the majority of her work is based on straight lines, either in the form of grids or stripes. But Martin’s life didn’t follow such a straight path. Suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, she was influenced as much by Taoism and Buddhism as her friends and fellow artists – Mark Rothko, Donald Judd and Barnett Newman.
Above: UNTITLED ink and wash on paper 1994
She once said of her work, “When people go to the ocean, they like to see it all day… I want to draw a certain response like this… when people leave themselves behind [and] experience simple joy.”
Born in 1912 in Canada, Agnes Bernice Martin moved to America aged twenty and spent the rest of her life either there or in New Mexico.
Initially she took a science degree, graduating in 1942, but in New York in ’41 she was drawn to the art she saw there and, after teaching in New Mexico and Washington, decided to do a masters in fine arts in Columbia in 1952. To support herself during this time she took various jobs and said, “Whenever I was really starving, I washed dishes. That way you were closer to the food.”
Below: UNTITLED one of Agnes’ earliest works painted 1952
Below: UNTITLED 1953
In 1957, aged 45, Agnes moved to New York from Taos, New Mexico where she soon made friends with Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Barnett Newman.
Here she is with Ellsworth Kelly in his New York studio in 1957…
In 1958 one of the best art dealers in New York, Betty Parsons, became a huge supporter of Agnes and set up a show at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Barnett Newman helped Agnes to hang her work there, Martin saying, “He was much better at it than I was.”
This is some of her work over the next 3 years…
Above: Agnes painting in her studio in 1960
Like many artists, Agnes’ initial paintings were landscapes, portraits and still lifes… “I’d done every kind of picture ‑portraits, landscapes, still lifes‑ but I didn’t want to show them. It wasn’t till I found the grid, in New York in 1960, that I felt satisfied with what I was doing. When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees, and I thought the grid represented innocence, and I still do. So I painted it, and I’ve been doing it for thirty years.”
Agnes described her work as Abstract Expressionism and “meditations on innocence, beauty, happiness and love.”
“If people have a painting of mine in the house, I like them to put it in the bedroom. If it’s the first thing they see when they wake up, they respond to abstract emotions before the stresses of the day can strike.”
Agnes did several pieces in this style using a pencil or pen…
Her paranoid schizophrenia meant she heard voices and sometimes fell into a trance. She claimed the voices inspired her and that she heard and saw things that others didn’t. She was often hospitalised and treated with shock therapy. She frequently wrote about her mind and thoughts…
Although Agnes had relationships with women, she always claimed she was not a lesbian. One of these relationships was with the Greek sculptor Chyssa and when it ended in 1967, coinciding with the death of her friend the artist Ad Reinhardt, Agnes gave away all her art materials, bought a camper van with money from a grant she’d just won and left New York. Decades later she said, “I left New York because every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting. It took me several years to find out that the cause was an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
No one is sure where she initially went, but in 1968, at the age of 56, she rented a remote plot of land in New Mexico and single-handedly built a one room dwelling from adobe bricks (she made the bricks), followed by a log cabin which she again built herself including felling the trees. She lived a frugal existence owning very little and had no electricity or neighbours. But in 1971 she began to paint again, leaving behind her grids and painting stripes in pale pink, yellow and blue.
Below: Agnes at her house in New Mexico 1974
Below: Arne Glimcher in Agnes’ studio in Cuba in 1977
Above: a WIND FENCE SCULPTURE made by Agnes in New Mexico in 1979
Above: UNTITLED early 1980s
Above: UNTITLED 1989
In 1992, she moved into a retirement community in Taos, New Mexico, and at odds with her frugalness, drove every day to her studio in a white BMW!
Below: UNTITLED 1995
From 1998 – 2002 Agnes made a film called WITH MY BACK TO THE WORLD of which this is a 2 minute extract…
Agnes continued to work until just before she died and her paintings remained as strong as ever…
Below: GRATITUDE 2001
Below: AFFECTION 2001
An exhibition of some of her last paintings…
Above: UNTITLED #21 2002
Above: HOMAGE TO LIFE 2003
Above: BLACK #1
This is Agnes’ very last work, a drawing made in 2004…
Agnes Martin died in December 2004 aged 92. Her great friend Arne Glimcher held her hand and sang to her. Her ashes are buried under an apricot tree in Taos.
I leave you with this wonderful video of Agnes talking about not thinking…
And if you would like to read more about Agnes this book, AGNES MARTIN her life and art is now in the om pom bookshop
WORDS: Cand Juskus
IMAGES: various online sources