Agnes Martin’s meditative painting Untitled #12 is an essay on the quiet power of art. Expansive bands of warm organic hues, separated by thin lines of graphite, evoke the wide empty spaces of the artist’s beloved New Mexico home. Coming of age in the decade of Abstract Expressionism, Martin confidently diverged from the wild gestural markings of her counterparts, instead she sought solace in a more contemplative form of painting. Her canvases are true abstract creations, revoking all references to the physical world, “My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything…,” the artist once said. “They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down forms (A. Martin in P. Schjeldahl, “Brice Marden & Agnes Martin,” Art of Our Time, Alistair Hicks (ed.), London, 1987, p. 37). Formally in the collection of Hannelore and Rudolph Schulhof, this painting is a triumph of transcendental existence in an increasingly complex and chaotic world.
My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down forms”
Untitled #12 envelops the viewer in an expanse of warm taupes and creams. Wide bands of sand colored hues are interspersed between thinner bands of warmer, lighter tones. Thin lines of almost indistinguishable graphite imbue the surface with a rhythmic sense of order. Although firmly rooted in the quiet beauty of the deserts of the American Southwest, the beauty of Martin’s work is not contained wholly within evocations of nature. They are also present in the physical beauty of the surface of the canvas itself. 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, yet enthralled euphoria.
This painting belongs to the artist’s celebrated series of six feet square canvases that sustained her throughout the mid-1980s, and became some of her most celebrated works. Using a T-square and stretched strings, and wielding a pencil, Martin drew these lines over the painted canvas, producing an allover rectangular grid. Of these configurations she stated, "My formats are square, 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). The curator Michael Govan described Martin’s surfaces as having almost imperceptible depth, as faint grids appear to hover over the planes of flat color. He identified "a transparent non-hierarchical field of vision," adding that “while even the inventors of abstraction, such as Kazimir Malevich and Piet 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).
Untitled #12 was formally in the collection of Hannelore B. and Rudolph B. Schulhof. The couple began collecting soon after they got married in the 1950s, and—in addition to Agnes Martin—their resulting collection contained some of the most important artists working in the second half of the twentieth century, including Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly. The couple were generous in sharing their collections with museums and institutions around the globe, culminating in a substantial gift of works to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Speaking of the works in her collection, including those of Agnes Martin, Hannelore Schulhof commented, “Art is almost like a religion. It is what I believe in… It is what gives my life dimension beyond the material world” (H. Schulhof, quoted in The Schulhof Collection, 2011, via http://theschulhofcollection.com/about/ [accessed 3/23/2021]).
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. Martin's 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 space and to emphasize a sense of transcendent reality. The grids and lines 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.
Lot Essay Header Image: Agnes Martin near her home in Cuba, New Mexico, 1974. Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni; © Maya Gorgoni.