Agnes Martin remains unsurpassed in her ability to create canvases of sublime beauty with minimal means. In Untitled #7, a large-scale canvas from 1984, Martin produces a work of supreme grace, combining the very basic elements of art—color and line—into a canvas that emanates a quiet, yet powerful authority. Each of the elements in this canvas—the scale, the cool palette, the Minimalist composition and even the considerable skill involved in creating such a rich and delicate painted surface—encapsulates the artist’s belief that art should not be a physical act, instead it should be an act of spiritual enlightenment. Rejecting the gesturally expressive actions of her antecedents, she forged a new way to discard centuries of representational artistic creation and instead create beauty out of calm and spirituality.
The beauty of Untitled #7 lies in its simplicity—a powerfully unpretentious arrangement of thin horizontal graphite lines set against a soft hued ground. Yet, this beauty is not contained wholly within these elements, it is also contained in a sensual richness that pervades the work. The subtle texture of her delicately worked surfaces, the fragility of the thin graphite lines and the frisson caused when the two meet, leaves the viewer with a feeling of quiet euphoria. Martin stressed that her paintings “…have neither objects, nor space, nor time, nor anything—no forms” (A. Martin, quoted by A. Lovatt, “In Pursuit of the Neutral: Agnes Martin’s Shimmering Line,” in in F. Morris & T. Bell, Agnes Martin, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2015, p. 104), and that the elicited response was a primitive one, rather than a logical one. “Art work is responded to with happy emotions,” she once said. “Our emotional life is really dominant over our intellectual life but we do not realize it” (A. Martin, “Beauty is the Mystery of Life,” in F. Morris & T. Bell, Agnes Martin, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 2015, p. 158).
Martin’s breakthrough works comprised of 6x6 foot square canvases (a format that would sustain her through the mid-1980s) covered in monochromatic grounds and overlaid by soft graphite lines. Delicately using a T-square and stretched strings, and wielding a pencil, Martin drew these lines over the painted canvas. Stopping short of an allover grid, these lines finish before the edges of the canvas, enhancing the sensation of space. Of this configuration she stated, “My formats are square,” the artist wrote, but the grids are never 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 in Dieter Schwartz, Agnes Martin: Writings, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1992, p. 29). Indeed, these works were as much about dematerialization as concrete geometry: the tremulous lines appeared to hover over pale, evanescent grounds transforming the canvas into what Michael Govan termed “a transparent non-hierarchical field of vision” He adds that while even the inventors of abstraction, such as Malevich and Mondrian clung to painterly composition, Martin virtually dispensed with this concept altogether. In fact, her paintings were barely paintings at all” (M. Govan, “Agnes Martin,” in L. Cooke and M. Govan, Dia: Beacon, New York, 2003, pp. 209-210).
This painting is a celebrated example of Martin’s aesthetic of the mid-1980s. The thin washes of color that characterized her work from the 1970s make way for soft tactile monochromatic surfaces. The pencil delineations that were visible through the washes of color that characterized her work of the 1970s and early 1980s, now sit on top of them. Retaining the veil-like ethereality of her earlier work, Untitled #7 retains a feeling of expansiveness on account of its span of cool hues emitting a warm ambiance. Martin’s specific process of using acrylic lends her work a highly-sophisticated tonality; colors absorb and reflect light, adding a particular luminescence that appears to dissolve the painted surface, no matter how textured and corporeal, into atmospheric light. Landscape is evoked everywhere: the orientation of the work suggests the horizon that demarcates the open skies from the vast expanses of desert; the coloring is reminiscent of wintry dawns and bodies of water; the soft texture recalls the touch of sand. One imagines the artist looking over the New Mexico landscape, inspired by the incandescent and austere quietude of her surroundings.
Like many Romantic artists of the twentieth century, Martin uses 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 insists that her art is not romantic but classical. Her aesthetic derives from a variety of sources, ranging from the Bible to the writings of, Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu, whose formulation of the Tao she has acknowledged as giving her daily sustenance and inspiration. Martin admired Mark Rothko for having reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth. Following his example, she too pared down the forms in her art to their most reductive elements in order to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize a sense of transcendent reality. The grids and lines of Untitled #7 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.