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


Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
titled 'WORDS' (on the stretcher)
ink and graphite on paper mounted on canvas
24 x 24in. (61 x 61cm.)
Executed in 1961
Betty Parsons Gallery, New York.
John Gordon, Palm Beach.
Pace Gallery, New York.
Paul F. Walter, New York.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's New York, 17 May 2000, lot 60.
Private Collection, Korea.
Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco.
Vivian Horan Fine Arts, New York.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's New York, 15 May 2008, lot 117.
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
C. Naylor and G. P-Orridge (eds.), Contemporary Artists, London 1977 (illustrated, p. 617).
F. Esterly, "Agnes Martin retrospective at the Whitney Museum" in Staten Island Advance, 24 December 1992 (illustrated).
J. Auer, "Octogenarian Martin's Abstracts Make Strong but Subtle Statements" in Milwaukee Journal, 21 February 1993 (illustrated).
H.L. Kohen, "Exhibition is Martin's Masterpiece" in Miami Herald, 23 May 1993 (illustrated).
C. Humblet, The New American Abstraction 1950-1970, vol. 2, Milan 2003 (illustrated, p. 1242).
C. de Zegher and H. Teicher (eds.), 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz and Agnes Martin, exh. cat., New York, The Drawing Center, 2005 (illustrated, p. 178).
M. Schieren, Agnes Martin: Transkulturelle Übersetzung, Munich 2016 (illustrated, p. 261).
New York, Betty Parsons Gallery, Agnes Martin: Paintings, 1961 (detail illustrated on the exhibition poster).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, A Decade of American Drawings: 1955-1965, 1965 (illustrated, p. 36).
Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Agnes Martin, 1973 (illustrated, p. 11).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Agnes Martin, 1992-1994, p. 185 (illustrated, p. 127). This exhibition later travelled to Wisconsin, Milwaukee Art Museum; Florida, Center for the Fine Arts; Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum and Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Agnes Martin, 2008, p. 22, no. 14 (illustrated in colour, p. 14).
Moscow, Gagosian Gallery, Red October Chocolate Factory, For What You are About to Receive, 2008 (illustrated in colour, p. 87).
London, Tate Modern, Agnes Martin, 2015-2017 (illustrated in colour, p. 234; detail illustrated, p. 239). This exhibition later travelled to Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
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Lot Essay

‘Art is the concrete manifestation of our most subtle feelings. That’s the end’
–Agnes Martin

‘My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in artwork, which is also wordless and silent’
–Agnes Martin

Executed in 1961, Words is an exquisite work dating from a pivotal moment in Agnes Martin’s early career. With its cruciform arrangement of triangles set against a plane of quivering horizontal lines, it bears witness to the encroaching logic of the grid as an organisational principle in her art, and to the early influence of landscape upon her aesthetic. In 1957 Martin took up residence in the Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, where her contemporaries included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. It was during this period that her geometric vocabulary began to solidify, seeking to conjure the fundamentally abstract experience of apprehending perfection through nature. Relatively rare within her oeuvre, the triangle may be seen to relate not only to the mountains of Taos, where she had spent her student years, but also to the triangular shape of the Coenties Slip itself, which looked out onto the vast horizontal expanse of river and ocean beyond. Later that year, the work was included in the artist’s final show with Betty Parsons: the influential New York dealer who played a vital role in the American abstract art scene. Illustrated on the exhibition poster, the work went on to feature in the artist’s major touring retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1992-93), and most recently the Tate Modern, London (2015). Throughout her practice, Martin strove to surpass the limitations of language through art – a mission invoked by the present work’s title. ‘My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent’, wrote Martin, ‘and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in artwork, which is also wordless and silent’ (A. Martin, ‘The Still and the Silent in Art’, 1972, Institute of Contemporary Art archives, University of Pennsylvania).

Deeply inspired by Eastern philosophy, Martin purposefully sought a life of solitude, maintaining that isolation was essential to her creative process. Whilst the non-hierarchical geometries of her compositions aligned her work with much of the 1960s avant-garde, including the Colour Field painting of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman as well as the stringent formalist languages of Minimalism, her unique combination of precision draughtsmanship and spiritual aspiration refused any wholesale allegiance to these practices. Her works are simultaneously concrete and evanescent: solid physical entities that, at the same time, hover perpetually on the brink of dissolution. Though marshalled by the rigour of the grid, her forms existed at the threshold of visibility, liable to vanish in the blink of an eye. As Peter Schjeldahl has written, ‘It is a lovely thing to see how Martin’s “formlessness” is achieved by exact formal means … The result of these calculations is like a visual equivalent of silence, in which the least inflection – a pale hue or the bump of a pencilled line over the tooth of the canvas – sings’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘Minimalism’, in The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978- 1990, Berkeley 1993, pp. 224-25). Despite the rigidity of her repetitive structures, the liminal nature of Martin’s technique transforms her canvases into ethereal visions: weightless, synesthetic planes unmoored from the traditional binaries of figure and ground. ‘My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything – no forms’, she explained. ‘They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form … You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean’ (A. Martin, quoted in A. Wilson, ‘Linear Webs,’ Art and Artists 1:7, Oct. 1966, p. 49).

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