"Any material may be used, but the theme is the same and the response is the same for all artwork ... we all have the same concern, but the artist must know exactly what the experience is. He must pursue the truth relentlessly." - Agnes Martin
In the late 1950s, Agnes Martin created delicate but vibrant works in a light, airy studio close to New York's East River on Coenties Slip. Martin lived and worked downtown in a sparsely furnished loft, amid a group of emerging younger artists, several of whom were also affiliated with her gallerist, the legendary and visionary Betty Parsons. Jack Youngerman, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, and Lenore Tawney offered Martin a supportive coterie, while she provided a model of a disciplined life dedicated to exacting practice.
The present lot, Homage to Greece, is offered on behalf of the Estate of pioneering fiber artist Lenore G. Tawney to benefit the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, established in 1989 to provide emerging artists with opportunities to further their artistic endeavors. Lenore Tawney's first solo exhibition was held from November 1961 through January 1962 at the Staten Island Museum in New York, and was curated by James Coggin. Martin contributed a brief introduction to a brochure for the exhibition. It is not only her earliest published statement, but also the only occasion on which she wrote on the work of a fellow artist: "With directness and clarity, with what appears to be complete certainty of image, beyond primitive determination or any other aggressiveness, sensitive and accurate down to the last twist of the smallest thread, [Lenore Tawney's] work flows out without hesitation and with a consistent quality.... There is an urgency that sweeps us up, an originality and success that holds us in wonder" (A. Martin, Lenore Tawney, New York, 1961, n.p.).
Martin completed Homage to Greece in 1959, an important year for her. She had her first exhibition at Betty Parsons and, by this time, her new and highly simplified abstract works, dominated by her all-over grids and monochromatic color schemes, had superceded her representational works (including surrealistic oils as well as landscapes and figurative watercolors). Homage to Greece is one of the earliest examples of Martin formally investigating the grid's aesthetic nature. In it, she explores these concepts in a composition of delicately overlapping painted canvas squares, carefully assembled and laid down on board, creating their own cumulative grid. Adding to the elements of assemblage, Martin hammered several nails lined up horizontally across the surface's upper half, puncturing the canvas; the resulting grids, squares and lines would become her work's central components throughout her career. Martin increasingly honed her formats into squares of two distinct sizes: small canvases of approximately a foot square, such as the present lot, and a grander, bodily-based scale measuring six feet per side. This is one of Martin's most intimate works, and executing her art on such a scale allowed her to explore her ideas fully, in close focus, while also permitting the viewer a condensed, engrossing, immersive experience.
Although critics have frequently labeled Martin as a Minimalist and closely affiliated with artists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Martin always described herself as an Abstract Expressionist. Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman particularly influenced her as a young artist in New York during the 1950s. Like them, she rejected recognizable forms, and strived to represent infinite space in a quest for the sublime. The concepts of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, which she had studied while at Columbia University in the early 1940s, proved vital to Martin's practice. This interest in spirituality led her to study the philosophy of ancient Greece, and Martin began to think of her geometric compositions as the most appropriate vehicle for expressing spiritual content. She looked toward Greek classicism's order to inspire her motifs. She manipulated geometry's logic to pursue classical perfection, which the artist considered absent from nature and only held in the mind. The qualities of beauty and perfection evident in Martin's paintings bear testimony to the artist's spiritual orientation and disciplined approach to life. Throughout the 1950s, Martin mastered the task of making a painting speak the language of the inner mind, a metaphysical place where she felt the external world's beauty and perfection resided as absolute ideas.