Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
signed and titled 'starlight a martin' (lower edge); signed again and dated 'a. martin 1963' (on the backing board)
watercolor and ink on paper
11¾ x 10½ in. (29.8 x 26.7 cm.)
Executed in 1963.
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Robert Elkon Gallery, New York
S.I Newhouse, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 18 November 1999, lot 247
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Master Drawings of American Post-War Art: A Private Collection
New York, The Drawing Center, 3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz and Agnes Martin, March-May 2005.
With only the sparest of means -- delicate line and pale color washes -- Agnes Martin's art evokes the sublime. Like the Abstract Expressionist painters she felt a special kinship with, Martin always believed in art's ability to express spiritual transcendence. As Martin affirmed, "I consider myself one of them. They had a whole philosophy. They dealt directly with those subtle emotions of happiness that I'm talking about" (A. Martin, quoted in 3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz and Agnes Martin, New York, 2005, p. 49). Whereas Newman focused on the zip's robust vertical chasm, and Rothko devoted himself to boldly hued rectangular veils of paint, Martin made the modest grid her signature, applied with the lightest touch of pencil and pen. The present collection, four remarkable Martin drawings, demonstrate the extraordinarily rich effects that she achieved with only the simplest of means. These works not only exemplify her early body of mature work, but also the later mature style that she developed after taking a transformative hiatus from art-making for several years.
Martin began her career working with landscapes, then worked in a biomorphic, Surrealist-inflected style, like so many of her generations's great abstract artists. In the late 1950s, she lived at Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, where a remarkable group of young artists gathered, including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and James Rosenquist, while Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg lived nearby. Yet even in this creative nexus, Martin remained aloof, devoted to a reclusive life that was essential to her creative process. "I suggest to artists," Martin wrote, "that you take every opportunity of being alone" (A. Martin, quoted in Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, Winterthur, 1991, p. 117). It was in her studio at Coenties Slip in the late 1950s that Martin struck upon the grid, creating all-over compositions that espoused the same non-hierarchical approach to composition as many of the New York School painters. In concentrating on the grid, she positioned herself to inherit an auspicious tradition in modernist art, stretching back to Mondrian.
For Martin, the grid combined her appreciation for Platonic geometrical idealism with her interest in Taoism's meditative focus egoless existence, which particularly resonated with her. In an interview later in life, Martin recalled what initially draw her to her signature format: "When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision" (A. Martin, quoted in S. Campbell, "Interview with Agnes Martin," Archives of American Art 15 May 1989).
Defining a core characteristics of her artistic oeuvre, Martin refused to distinguish between drawing and painting, poetically collapsing them together. In her paintings, Martin applied her grids in graphite pencil, thereby fusing draftsmanship with painting. Martin seamlessly merged these two mediums, allowing drawing's directness and intimacy to suffuse her paintings. Thus her works on paper and those on canvas were mainly divided simply by scale. In her works on paper, Martin favored an intimate scale.
Martin emphasized drawing's primacy, a quality she significantly shared with Barnett Newman, whom she deeply admired, and who in turn supported her work. Both profoundly believed in abstraction's ability to express ineffable states of being, and instill tranquility and exaltation. Newman actively promoted Martin's work, and even helped install Martin's exhibitions in the late 1950s at the renowned Betty Parsons Gallery in New York.
Starlight, a 1963 drawing in ink and watercolor on paper, is an early example of Martin's mature style, and a particularly luminous work. Upon a field of deep blue washes, which evoke the night sky's serenity, Martin traced a grid in ink, using a stippled line to give the composition delicacy and evanescence. Although she used a ruler or straightedge to guide her horizontal and vertical axes, Martin created a tremulous, distinctly sensitive line, that radically, directly expresses feeling.
Starlight follows Martin's classic arrangement, weaving fragile lines in a rectilinear grid. As Martin described, "My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a little bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn't set out to do it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power" (A. Martin, quoted in Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, p. 29). Through these carefully balanced compositional elements and the lightest touch, Martin achieves both a finely tuned tension and meditative calm.
As its title suggests, Starlight conveys on an intimate scale the night sky's awe-inspiring beauty, and distant stars' delicate light, although without any explicit mimetic reference. While nature inspired Martin -- she spent much of her life in the American West's open spaces -- she focused on the transcendent experience that can be achieved within nature. As Martin explained, "Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this. Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature -- an experience of simple joy, this simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean" (A. Martin, quoted in Agnes Martin, New York, 1993, p. 109). Starlight exemplifies Martin's search for beauty and joy, truth and serenity, egoless calm. Paper's physical weightlessness and watercolor's transparency correspond especially well with the spiritual dimensions that Martin favored. The formal harmony of Starlight also exudes the classical balance and idealism that Martin preferred. She stressed, "I would like my work to be recognized as being in the classic tradition (Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese), as representing the Ideal in the mind. Classical art can not possibly be eclectic. One must see the Ideal in one's own mind. It is like a memory of perfection" (A. Martin, quoted in Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, p. 19).
In an exquisite untitled drawing of 1963, Martin departed from her classic grid, and instead used an oval form dominated by horizontal bands. This drawing is an extremely rare example of Martin using a curved form, and beautifully counterpoints her traditional grid motif. As with her grids, however, Martin imbued the drawing with a holistic quality that results from the accumulation of line. She subtly grades the tone, alternating slightly thinner and thicker lines, imparting a particularly sensual character to its austere form. Unbounded by lines, the oval's contour is defined simply by the termination point of the horizontal lines, weightlessly suspended above one another. Indeed, this egg-like form seems to float upon the paper, defying gravity.
Martin's work was consistently well-received in exhibitions at Betty Parsons and Robert Elkon Galleries in New York from the late 1950s through the 1960s. Her pared-down compositional methods appealed to a young generation in the 1960s, including Eva Hesse, Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd and Carl Andre. These artists shared Martin's preference for both non-hierarchical compositional methods and the grid, although they employed industrial methods and rejected art's emotional and spiritual dimension, going against the grain of Martin's philosophy. Martin retreated from New York just as she was being hailed as a harbinger of Minimalism in the late 1960s. Indeed, in 1967, the year after the Guggenheim Museum included her their "Systemic Painting" exhibition, she abandoned the city for the wilderness, wandering through the North and West before settling in New Mexico. There, she built her home with her own hands, using traditional adobe bricks atop an empty mesa, and focused on her writing. Martin ceased making art altogether at this point. "Instead," she explained, "I meditated. I searched for the truth. I search for the truth all the time, but I gave it extra time then" (A. Martin, quoted in 3x Abstraction, p. 31).
In 1974, Martin returned painting, and continued refining the format she had developed in the 1960s. Both 1977 works in the present collection, both titled Untitled, lyrically examplify this new style, where bands of subtle color now predominate over line. These works superbly represent the color palettes that Martin particularly favored, in both warm and cool inflections. Both conjure nature, either the sky's cool shades or the warm tones of skin or earth, although never explicitly alluding to any single meaning. "I want people, when they look at my paintings, to have the same feelings they experience when they look at landscape," Martin explained. "But it's really about the feeling of beauty and freedom, that you experience in landscape" (A. Martin, quoted in 3x Abstraction, p. 50).
These two untitled works show how, within strictly imposed limits, Martin achieved a remarkable variety of emotive effects. "Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings," she observed (A. Martin, quoted in Ibid.). Even on the intimate scale of these works on paper, Martin achieves luminous space. The alternating color bands act as subtle chords that resonate harmoniously, imbued with Martin's typical combination of evanescence and tranquility. The watercolor's delicacy makes it appear the artist breathed the pigments onto the paper's surface. In such finely honed abstract masterworks, Martin continued to follow her singular path.