“My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything. A world without objects, without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of the simple direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”
Agnes Martin conjures the serenity of the ocean, the tranquility of the desert, and the quiet respite of nature without resorting to representation. Through the subtle interplay of color and line, paintings such as Untitled, made in the penultimate year of Martin’s life, aim to enthrall the viewer in a meditative trance that evokes stillness, equilibrium, and the feeling of being in nature. Yet the artist herself was clear that her paintings were not landscapes. “A lot of people say that my work is like landscape. But the truth is that it isn’t because there are no straight lines in nature. My work is non-objective, like that of the abstract expressionists. But I want people, when they look at my paintings, to have the same feelings they experience when they look at a landscape so I never protest when they say my work is like a landscape. But it’s really about a feeling of beauty and freedom, that you experience in a landscape” (A. Martin interviewed by Irving Sandler, Art Monthly, No. 169, September, 1993).
Bands of pale yellow, clear sky blue, and a red that looks as if it has been rendered by pounding a desert rock into a powder and made into a watercolor-like wash are alternated in a vertical march up the height of the canvas. Measuring five square feet, Untitled is large enough to become a field that can engulf the viewer’s ocular span. The delicacy and precision with which Martin has delineated these subtle washes of color create an atmospheric effect, making the colors hover above the surface of the canvas as if a gentle mist, perceptible yet out of reach even while floating in front of our very eyes.
Martin’s carefully crafted interplay between line and color achieves a synthesis of opposing poles in an aesthetic debate that has been waged between colorito and disegno since the Italian Renaissance. Similarly, Martin stakes out new terrain in the space between drawing and painting by using both acrylic pigments and graphite directly upon the canvas. More so, the rigidity of the grid, and its mechanical order, is counterbalanced by the delicacy of the artist’s hand, and her tactile approach to applying color. Because of her ability to balance all these dual concerns, Martin is often seen as the inheritor of both Abstract Expressionism’s expressive color and evocation of the spiritual as well as a progenitor of Minimalism’s cool sense of order, technical rigor, and reduced forms.
Martin came of age in New York in the mid-1950s while sharing a studio with Ellsworth Kelly, James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana, and Jack Youngerman at 3-5 Coenties Slip on Manhattan’s south eastern coastal edge. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns worked nearby. Aside from the address they shared, these artists each pursued their own individual styles which set them apart from their contemporaries and each other. Despite the congenial and collaborative environment of a building in which studio mates would support each other through direction and advice, even in the mid-1950s, Martin preferred the isolation of a reclusive life. Aside from inspiring Ellsworth Kelly to consider different forms around the studio for his paintings, her advice: “I suggest to artists that you take every opportunity of being alone” (A. Martin, quoted in Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, Winterthur, 1991, p. 117).
By 1967, the artist had come to the attention of many of the Minimalist artists, like Donald Judd, who (in his early career as a critic) wrote about her work twice; Carl Andre, who utilized the grid as the basis of his floor compositions, and Sol LeWitt, whose application of pencil to wall mirrored Martin’s approach to drawing with graphite on canvas. With these new-found accolades and applauses, Martin left New York in 1967 to eventually settle in New Mexico after a seven-year hiatus from painting. There, in isolation, Martin submerged herself in the landscape, a faithful companion to the artist throughout the next thirty years and the muse that would direct her attempts to capture evanescence.
Despite the alliance the Minimalists felt with Martin, it was with Abstract Expressionists, like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, with whom Martin felt a true kinship. The grid became Martin’s way of approaching the non-hierarchical, all-over, instead of center-focused painting, and a matrix for approaching the spiritual and transcendent in painting. Martin would begin to use the grid at Coenties Slip, reducing the format of her mentor Ad Reinhardt’s dense black-on-black delineated spaces to smaller compartments while simultaneously achieving a light airiness through a subtle application of color. As Lawrence Alloway describes, “Accepting the format of the painting (that is, the shape of the ground) as an absolute, as we must be prepared to do in interpreting painters’ ideas of space, it is possible to say that Martin’s seamless surface signifies, for all its linear precision, an image dissolving. The uninflected radiant fields are without the formal priorities of figure and field or hierarchic ranking of forms and the skinny grids are set in monochrome colors that make visible the shifting gradients of real light across the painting. The effect is of precision and elusiveness at once” (L. Alloway, ‘Agnes Martin,’ in Agnes Martin, exh. cat. Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia 1973, p. 9). Extending to the edges of the canvas, Martin’s grids suggest the extension of the matrix beyond its limits, a structure underpinning all the visible world, and begin to hint at the spiritual undercurrent of the artist’s aims to transcend the material world in its pursuit of the sublime.