Agnes Martin's work deliberately echoes the sublime beauty and selfless happiness of gazing at a wide horizon. From the plains of Tulsa to the desert and ocean, Martin believed that the horizon's infinite expanse makes us aware of a wholeness and perfection that, although unseen and immaterial, is the pervasive essence of reality. Martin believed that all human beings momentarily sense this perfection in the world in moments of exaltation such as when we quietly contemplate Nature. It is only then, she believed, when such external stimuli quiet self-awareness, that one forgets oneself, becomes truly humble and appreciates such perfection. Even though such moments are fleeting they point, she insisted, to universal and absolute truths. We can reawaken memories of such moments, she maintained, through art. To evoke such sublime beauty is ultimately the true nature of the artist's task.
Like many 20th Century Romantic artists, Martin used abstraction as a tool of revelation. In this respect, her work continues the Romantic abstract tradition established by Malevich, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Rothko but differs in one fundamental way: Martin insisted that her art is not romantic but classical. Martin's aesthetic derived from a variety of sources, ranging from the Bible to the writings of Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu, whose formulation of the Tao sustained and inspired her daily. In the 1950s, Martin came into contact with the work of Rothko, Newman and Reinhardt. Looking past their art to its roots in Ancient Greek art, Martin began to employ simple geometry in her work to convey the sublime. "The Greeks made a great discovery," she observed, "They discovered that in Nature there are no perfect circles or straight lines or equal spaces. Yet they discovered that their interest and inclination was in the perfection of circles and lines, and that in their minds they could see them and that they were then able to make them. They realised that the mind knows what the eye has not seen and that what the mind knows is perfection." (A. Martin, quoted in "What we do not see if we do not see," cited in Agnes Martin: Writings, Dieter Schwarz, ed., Winterthur, p. 117).
Martin praised Rothko for having " reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth." Following his example Martin also pared down to the most reductive elements to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize transcendent reality. The grids and lines that Martin derived from this process answered her desire to create a humble art that was empty of ego and yet pointed to the transcendent and the sublime. As Barbara Haskell has written of her work, Martin's "gossamer lines functioned as visual correlatives of the infinite lightness and delicacy she associated with humility. Likewise, her 'empty' rectangles provide a visual equivalent to the emptiness of mind which was a prerequisite for the perception of the absolute" (Agnes Martin, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 106).
"My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything -- no forms." Martin herself commented on the Minimalist way her paintings convey sublime beauty and happiness. "They (are) not really about nature," she insisted, because they depict "not what is seen," but "what is known forever in the mind." Part of a generation of North Americans who were inspired by the teachings of Zen Master D.T. Suzuki, Martin adopted and adapted Zen's calm contemplative vision of Nature and the world as illusion and combined it in her art with the vast space of the American landscape to create sublime but simple works of surprising depth and transcendental beauty. "When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection" (Ibid., p. 157).