Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
One of the most interesting exponents of minimalism, the Canadian-born painter, printmaker, art teacher and theorist Agnes Martin settled in the United States in 1932, becoming an American citizen in 1950. Until the mid-1950s, her paintings were almost wholly representational, but thereafter she turned to abstract art and within a decade had discovered her signature style - a square monochrome canvas, typically layered with gesso, overlaid with hand-drawn pencil lines and thin layers of oil or acrylic paint. All this is exemplified by Tremolo (1962, MoMA, NYC), and Untitled No 4 (1984, Private Collection). Her lack of narrative, or any superfluous detail, places Martin firmly in the Minimalist camp of contemporary art, although her stated aim was not to create an intellectual form of abstraction but rather emotions that could be experienced, in the manner of abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko. No doubt brighter colours would have helped to reinforce her point. One of the more unusual abstract painters of her time, her works of art were complemented by an equally unusual lifestyle: she watched no television and did not read a single newspaper in the last 50 years of her life.
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Early Life and Teaching
Born in Maklin, Saskatchewan, on the western plains of Canada, Agnes Martin grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. She moved to the United States in 1932 and, until 1940, lived in Washington and Oregon, where she began an intermittent series of art courses. After studying at Western Washington State College, Bellingham, and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, she eventually received her B.S. and M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. During the late 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, she taught art at schools in Washington, Delaware and New York, and at the University of New Mexico and Eastern Oregon College, La Grande. She became a United States citizen in 1950.
In 1957, she moved to New York, settling in Coenties Slip, lower Manhattan, where her friends and neighbours included other artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman and James Rosenquist, although for much of the time she lived a relatively solitary life. In 1958, she had her first solo exhibition at Section Eleven of the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. By this time, Martin's representational works, including surrealistic oils as well as landscape and figurative watercolours, had been superceded by her new and highly simplified abstract pictures marked by square canvas formats hosting all-over grids of pencil lines and monochromatic colour schemes. This style of minimalist painting brought Martin increasing critical acclaim in the early 1960s, as the Minimalism movement gathered momentum.
Also known as "ABC art", "Literalist art", "Imageless Pop", and "Primary Structure art", Minimalism was dominated by sculpture. Minimalist painting embraces the striped canvases of Frank Stella, as well as paintings by Jo Baer, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Ryman. Typically characterized by precisely edged, unitary geometric forms, rigid planes of cool colours, or just a single colour, applied so as to leave no gestural brush marks, it is often based on a grid design. In general, the important thing about minimalist painting is the viewer's perception - that is, how he or she perceives and experiences the work and the relationship between its component parts.
Martin's work adheres to most of these criteria, she maintained that her main focus was on the emotional content of her work. In 1976, for instance, she gave a lecture at Yale University in which she outlined how this regard for emotionalism linked her more with Abstract Expressionism, than Minimalism.
In 1967, Martin left New York and moved to New Mexico, where she did not paint for seven years, concentrating instead on her art writing, although in 1973 the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, organized a retrospective of her work (1957-67) which later travelled to the Pasadena Art Museum, California.
In 1974, she returned to painting, completing a set of new works and, since 1975, has shown her paintings more regularly, winning several honours and achieving an influential reputation as a highly innovative artist. She has also expanded her neutral colour schemes to include a range of brighter hues. Agnes Martin continued painting into her late 80s, and eventually passed away at the age of 92. Although less well known than other minimalist painters like Robert Ryman (b.1930), Frank Stella (b.1936), and sculptors Donald Judd (1928-1994), Robert Morris (b.1931), and Richard Serra (b.1939), she remains one of the most interesting 20th century painters of her genre, and her calligraphic-style abstraction remains an important influence on contemporary art. Her works are represented in several of the best art museums in America.