In the late 1950s, after a long period of investigation and self-education, Agnes Martin established the formal parameters of what came to be her mature oeuvre. Insisting on the use of grids and repetitive geometric patterns while preserving the sensual richness of the brushstroke, Martin is regarded as a bridge between two generations of American artists—the Abstract Expressionists, whom she admired and recognized as her peers, and the Minimalists, who saw her as an inspiring precursor.
Martin, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, was drawn to the arid, open landscape of New Mexico as a student in the 1940s and established her permanent home and studio there in 1968. The vast southwestern desert became a defining experience and a subject of constant meditation for her. “I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought/my mountains looked like ant hills/I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought/ the plain had it/just the plane,” she recalled in a poem that explains the inti- mate connection between the radical abstraction of her paintings and idealized landscapes, especially the desert and the ocean. The spiritual experience of landscape underlies her allover grid paintings that, as she once said, are never mechanical and never rigid. A close examination of Untitled (c. 1959), for example, shows that the grid-like drawing—a field of adjacent rectangles, in fact—has been carefully marked by hand into a thick irregular layer of white paint. However evocative the titles of some paintings may appear (such as Window , The Spring , and Earth , all on view in this gallery), Martin described her work as “anti-nature.” Through simple, persistent, yet apparently fragile geometry based on grids and planes, she found she could pursue an ideal of classical perfection whose forms are held only in the mind.
Between 1967 and 1974, Martin gave up painting and pursued isolation and a simple lifestyle as a means of sustaining spiritual awareness, which she understood as the only source of genuine inspiration. Leaving New York City—where she had lived since the 1950s, and which she found increasingly distracting—Martin moved permanently to an adobe house that she built herself on a deserted mesa near the small town of Cuba, New Mexico. Martin’s temporary interruption of her practice, a drastic hiatus often mythologized by art historians and critics, did not hinder the calm evolution of her formal language over the next three decades. In fact, the works produced at the end of her career often include elements reminiscent of her earlier periods. Those parallels are sometimes unexpected, such as the ominous black that conceals more than it reveals in Untitled #17 (2002) and Untitled (c. 1957). Often employing delicate pastels and light gray washes, Martin’s late paintings emphasize lightness over structure and seem to emanate light rather than reflect it. In her Innocent Love series (1999), gently insistent horizontal lines, bounding the color washes, suggest an infinite space beyond the frames of the five-foot-square canvases. The theme of innocent love may be related to the artist’s descriptions of the “untroubled state of mind” (often referred to in her journals) that allows for “moments of inspiration,” which “added together make what we call sensibility.” Innocent young children, in Martin’s view, have many more inspirations than adults: such notions may have informed the ethereal tone of these elusive yet luminous works.