“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...” Agnes Martin
“In our minds there is an awareness of perfection and when we look with our eyes we see it.” Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin’s Untitled II is an evocation of the sublime; an exploration of the emotional power of painting and how an artist is able to conjure up essential beauty without having to resort to the competing dualities of abstraction or figuration. Martin believed that all human beings momentarily sense 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. Her canvases, seemingly devoid of any symbolic or emblematic content, are in fact capable of imparting tremendous emotion as the deafening silence they impart forces us to confront our true self. Acquired by the present owner in 1983, Untitled II is a tour-de-force that relates to these universal and absolute truths and ultimately to Martin’s belief that to evoke such sublime beauty is ultimately the true nature of the artist’s task.
In Untitled II, the expanse of translucent pigment that makes up the surface of the painting is only disrupted by four gossamer thin lines of graphite that traverse the canvas’s surface. These lines represent the slightest interventions possible on an otherwise empty surface, but ones which nonetheless have a profound effect on the overall composition. Rather than disturbing the expanse on which it sits, these lines actually encourage closer scrutiny. Without any other distractions, the eye follows the lines across the canvas, absorbing the myriad of intricacies that occupy the painting’s surface. The graphite lines picks up the slight topographical nuances left by the filaments of Martin’s brush as it travelled across the canvas, rising and falling to accommodate the ripples of paint settled on the surface. Although ostensibly a shade of ivory, the surface actually radiates a wide array of warm colors ranging from pinks to oranges—colors not immediately visible to the eye, but which only reveal themselves only after a prolonged period of contemplation.
Untitled II was painted in 1982 while Martin was living in the rural seclusion of New Mexico. Prior to this, in the 1970s, her canvases had become increasingly chromatic, absorbing the colors of her desert surroundings and were dominated by hues of warm pink, soft yellow and pale blues. But beginning in the late 1970s her works became increasingly monochromatic; fields of a single color displaced by simple lines. “Can you imagine,” she told Arne Glimcher, “I thought that I was going to paint color pictures and I did again and again. Well I took myself completely out of these paintings and let them happen and they were made with the most economic of means…almost no color…almost no line” (A. Martin, quoted by A. Glimcher, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, 2012, London, p. 116).
For over forty years, Martin explored her perceptions of truth and beauty by annulling the complications of conventional space. Her early upbringing in the vast open plains of Canada and her formal training at university in New Mexico gave her an almost mystical understanding of tranquility, space and a deep appreciation of the spiritual forces of nature. Deeply personal, her compositions of simple, almost invisible colors, combine with gossamer horizontal or vertical lines that grew from the traditions of the Abstract Expressionists. Although minimal in effect, her art was not an intellectual exercise, but an emotional one. Martin might seem to have broached the reductiveness of Minimalism, yet her visual poetry is light years removed from that movement’s brute materialism. Instead, her aim was to induce a state of rapt contemplation in the beholder, comparable to the experience we might feel when sitting alone amid a tranquil landscape.
Although Agnes Martin’s reductive paintings have been keenly associated with the Minimalist movement (even though she referred to herself as an Abstract Expressionist), like Rothko she was an artist also more akin to the Romantic tradition, who wished to create images of sublime perfection and simple beauty. Living an almost ascetic existence in New Mexico, she seemed to encapsulate a sense of the spirituality and tranquility of the desert and the big sky into her paintings. Always working within the regularity of a square format, she used the calm mathematical logic of the lines to strip down her compositions to the barest bones, her repeated horizontal lines suggesting an idealized notion of landscape but in her best work, the rigidness of geometrical order is counterbalanced by the humanity of the artist’s touch, the softness of her almost invisible brushstrokes and the occasional hesitancy of her line.
“My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything—no forms” she said. “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” (A. Martin, quoted in Agnes Martin, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 106).