Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912 – December 16, 2004) was a Canadian-American painter, often referred to as a minimalist; Martin considered herself an abstract expressionist.
Agnes Martin was born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, grew up in Vancouver,and moved to the United States in 1931, becoming a citizen in 1950. Martin studied at Western Washington University College of Education, Bellingham, WA, prior to receiving her B.S. (1942) from Teachers College, Columbia University. A few years following graduation, Martin matriculated at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where she also taught art courses before returning to Columbia University to earn her M.A. (1952). Her work is most closely associated with Taos, New Mexico, although she moved to New York City after being discovered by the artist/gallery owner Betty Parsons in 1957. According to a filmed interview with her which was released in 2003, she moved from New York City only when she was told her rented loft/workspace/studio would be no longer available because of the building’s imminent demolition. She goes on further to state that she could not conceive of working in any other space in NY and consequently left the city for other places and ended up in Taos, NM.
Since her first solo exhibition in 1958, Martin’s work has been the subject of more than 85 solo shows and two retrospectives including the survey Agnes Martin organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, which later traveled to Milwaukee, Miami, Houston and Madrid (1992–94) and Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1974–1990 organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, with subsequent venues in France and Germany (1991–92). In 2002, the Menil Collection, Houston, mounted Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond. That same year, The Harwood Museum of Art at the University of New Mexico, Taos, organized Agnes Martin: Paintings from 2001, as well as a symposium honoring Martin on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
Her signature style is defined by an emphasis upon line, grids, and fields of extremely subtle color. While minimalist in form, these paintings were quite different in spirit from those of her other minimalist counterparts, retaining small flaws and unmistakable traces of the artist’s hand; she shied away from intellectualism, favoring the personal and spiritual. Her paintings, statements, and influential writings often reflect an interest in Eastern philosophy, especially Taoist. Because of her work’s added spiritual dimension, which became more and more dominant after 1967, she preferred to be classified as an abstract expressionist. She consciously distanced herself from the social life and social events that brought other artists into the public eye. When she died at age 92, she was said to have not read a newspaper for the last 50 years. The book dedicated to the exhibition of her work in New York at The Drawing Center in 2005—3 X Abstraction (Yale University Press)— analyzes the spiritual dimension in Martin’s work. She then moved onto working with shoes, shirts and other clothing. She blended these into paintings through a technique she called ‘clothed spacing.’
Martin worked only in black, white, and brown before moving to New Mexico. During this time, she introduced light pastel washes to her grids, colors that shimmered in the changing light.
Sister Wendy Beckett, in her book American Masterpieces, said about Martin: “Agnes Martin often speaks of joy; she sees it as the desired condition of all life. Who would disagree with her?… No-one who has seriously spent time before an Agnes Martin, letting its peace communicate itself, receiving its inexplicable and ineffable happiness, has ever been disappointed. The work awes, not just with its delicacy, but with its vigor, and this power and visual interest is something that has to be experienced.”
Frida Hyvönen’s song “Straight Thin Line” was inspired by Agnes Martin.
In 1998, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.