Agnes Martin's Not So Minimal Artistic Legacy

Agnes Martin Untitled #5, 1998 Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Acquired with assistance from the Gesellschaft der Freunde, numerous artists and art dealers and with special support from the guests of the dinner of 3 December 2011.
Agnes Martin Untitled #5, 1998 Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Acquired with assistance from the Gesellschaft der Freunde, numerous artists and art dealers and with special support from the guests of the dinner of 3 December 2011. | © 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Rachel Gould

Art & Design Editor

Agnes Martin (1912–2004) is best known for her subtle paintings of stripes and grids. Her work is so subtle, in fact, that the viewer strains to physically see it. It’s easy to underestimate Martin’s ironically bold artistic legacy when some of her canvasses are so sparse that they practically look blank. So in conjunction with her comprehensive retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, we consider why Agnes Martin remains one of history’s most significant contemporary artists.

From left to right: Agnes Martin Untitled #15, 1988 Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas, 182.9 x 182.9 cm Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of The American Art Foundation in honor of Charlotte and Irving Rabb, 1997 © 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Agnes Martin. Untitled #2, 1992 Acrylic and graphite on canvas 72 x 72 inches (182.9 x 182.9 cm) Private collection © 2016 Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Minimalism is an inherently problematic style for many aspiring art lovers, who question why and how such extreme simplicity could have any lasting value – and understandably so.

But for Agnes Martin, art is about more than the visual: “When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind.”

So while her aesthetic is undoubtedly muted, Martin’s work is heady and speaks volumes to a vivid spectrum of highly abstract concepts, including “happiness, love, and experiences of innocence, freedom, beauty, and perfection.”

Ultimately, the value of Agnes Martin’s work (which also consistently fetches millions at auction) lies in the intricacies of its profundity and surprising radicalism.

Agnes MartinGratitude, 2001Acrylic and graphite on canvas60 x 60 inches (152.4 x 152.4 cm) Glimcher Family Collection

It wasn’t until the age of 30 that Agnes Martin began experimenting with art. She initially painted still lifes, portraits, and landscapes, but as she developed her aesthetic she delved into what she considered pure Abstract Expressionism – meaning that her work was entirely conceptual rather than representative.

Still, you can’t help but see the occasional mountain range or distant horizon in some of her works.

In 1957, the artist (who was born in Canada and previously lived in New Mexico) established herself in New York City where her work became simpler and more geometric, and her increasingly metaphysical paintings came to favor the “subtleties of line, surface, tone, and proportion.”

As her work simplified, it actually commanded more attention and closer observation. During her time in New York City, she would garner substantial acclaim for her large, understated canvasses.

As author of Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art Nancy Princenthal mused to the LA Times, “There is a famous Agnes Martin-ism: She was having a conversation with someone about spending time in front of work and how you really need to be in front of it face-to-face… And the critic said, “How much time?” And she said, “Oh, a minute.” And he said, “A minute?” And she said, “A minute is quite a long time.” Most museum goers stand in front of a painting as long as it takes to snap a selfie. So a minute is a long time.”

Agnes MartinThe Egg, 1963Ink on paper8 1/2 x 6 inches (21.6 x 15.2 cm) Courtesy The Elkon Gallery, New York

And each of Martin’s works indeed demands at least one minute of intense, in-person observation for the viewer to register just how profound it is in its simplicity.

Martin’s unparalleled Minimalism was, believe it or not, revolutionary. She was developing the style before it became an organized aesthetic movement, and stood out as one of the few successful female artists of the 1950s and 60s.

Martin ran in social circles with the likes of Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelley, Robert Raschenberg and Jasper Johns; thus she knew all the right people, but she herself was private and maintained an air of mystery.

She was a known perfectionist, and destroyed the works that she felt were inferior depictions of her abstract subject matters. The paintings that remain are the works Martin deemed as close to perfection as possible.

Agnes MartinUntitled, 2004Acrylic on canvas60 x 60 inches (152.4 x 152.4 cm) Collection of Mitzi and Warren Eisenberg

Agnes Martin’s works are at once modest and profound, depicting life’s grandest concepts in the palest hues and most basic shapes. Yet her paintings possess a richly sensual, deeply spiritual essence that require investigation and do, somehow, evoke awe.

Martin once said of her work: “I would like [my pictures] to represent beauty, innocence and happiness… I would like them all to represent that. Exaltation.”

Agnes Martin is the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work in more than 20 years, surveying her aesthetic transition from Abstract Expressionism towards Minimalism from the start of her career through to her final pieces produced in the early 2000s.

Agnes Martin will be on view at the Guggenheim Museum through January 11th, 2017. Tickets to the artist’s retrospective can be purchased here.

landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

X
Edit article