Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
Agnes Martin (1912-2004)

Untitled No. 4

Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
Untitled No. 4
signed and dated 'a. martin 1984' (on the reverse)
acrylic and graphite on canvas
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 1984.
The Pace Gallery, New York
Yvon Lambert, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner
The American Art Book, New York, 1999, p. 294 (illustrated in color).
J. Meyer, ed., Minimalism, London, 2000, p. 172 (illustrated in color).
30,000 Years of Art, London, 2007, p. 997 (illustrated in color).
E. Hartley, Art & Today, New York, 2008, pp. 87-88 (illustrated in color).
T. Godfrey, Painting Today, London, 2009, p. 40 (illustrated in color).
10,000 Years of Art, London, 2009, p. 497 (illustrated in color).
New York, The Pace Gallery, Agnes Martin: New Paintings, January-February 1985.
Paris, Yvon Lambert, Agnes Martin: Peintures 1975-1986, April-May 1987.

Lot Essay

Agnes Martin's Untitled No.4 is a work of extreme delicacy and precision that seems to hover, like a mirage, on the threshold of our perception. With its square format, grid composition and opalescent luminosity, it recalls Martin's suggestively titled paintings of the 1960's, such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's White Flower and Milk River in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The essence of Martin's artistic achievement is to have distilled sensations derived from nature and the universe into pictorial fields that combine linear tracery with exquisitely pale hues. The outcome is a balance between geometry and light. Her canvases radiate calmness and equilibrium, exerting a hypnotic spell upon the viewer's gaze.

For over forty years, Martin explored her perceptions of truth and beauty. By using a simple grid that annulled the complications of conventional space, she created a body of work that sought the sublime and transcended the tangible world. Despite a successful early career in New York, Martin abandoned the East Coast in 1967, relinquished painting for seven years and retreated to the remoteness of New Mexico where, the isolation and expansiveness of the landscape enabled her to instill a spirituality into her work that endured throughout her life.
Deeply personal, her compositions of rarefied colors and horizontal or vertical lines 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.
Untitled No.4 is sometimes compared to a landscape. While Martin denied that her art was based upon landscape, she did not object to viewers associating her images with qualities found in nature.

"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." (Agnes Martin interviewed by Irving Sandler, Art Monthly, No. 169, September, 1993)

Martin's aims were in harmony with the more contemplative side of Abstract Expressionism, exemplified by Mark Rothko's luminescent fields. As Rothko said he wanted viewers to have a religious experience before his paintings, so Martin shares a similar spiritual ambition, albeit one purged of the earlier movement's melodrama and overt emotionalism. Instead, hers is an uplifted vision reflecting a mind at one with the universe.

Martin's art fuses the primacy of drawing with a painterly sensitivity. Silent and still, her works breathe calmness, a reflection of the artist's own visionary personality. In Untitled No.4 there is a compelling relationship between Martin's delicate graphite traces and the expansiveness of her tinted gesso paintwork. In many paintings Martin orchestrated the tonalities so that they appear to hover like a mist or afterglow suspended in a mysterious space. However, in Untitled No.4 her means are reduced to a pitch of ascetic austerity and, as such, the painting is heir to the twentieth century's lengthy tradition of monochromatic abstraction, extending from Kazimir Malevich's iconic White on White to Barnett Newman's unbroken color fields. Yet unlike such Abstract Expressionist predecessors as Rothko and Newman, Martin chose to inscribe the subtlest linear palimpsest upon her canvases. Consequently they push draftsmanship to the most fragile and lyrical extremes. Symmetrically poised and serene, Untitled No.4 seems to approach the absolute.

With thanks to David Anfam, author of Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998.

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