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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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.