AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
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AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
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Ivan & Genevieve Reitman: A Life in Pictures
AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)

Untitled #6

AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
Untitled #6
signed and dated 'a. martin 1989' (on the reverse)
acrylic and graphite on canvas
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Executed in 1989.
Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1990
T. Bell, ed., Agnes Martin Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings, digital, ongoing, no. 1989.006 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds, there is awareness of perfection.
Agnes Martin (Agnes Martin, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 157).

The quiet beauty of Agnes Martin’s Untitled #6 can be found in the physical manifestation of the artist’s continuous search for the moments of perfection found in the sublime. Each of the elements in these canvases—the scale, the monochromatic palette, the minimalist composition and even the physical act of creating the painting itself—encapsulates Martin’s belief that art should not be a corporeal 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.

Martin’s simple composition of alternating bands of light and darker gray pigment evokes the shadows cast by the mountains of New Mexico where she had been living since she left New York in the late 1960s. Eschewing the rambunctiousness of her New York School contemporaries, Martin sought out silence and solitude. Yet the beauty of Martin’s work is not contained wholly within these 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. 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 an logical one. 
Martin’s early breakthrough works comprised of 6x6 foot square canvases covered in monochromatic grounds and overlaid by soft graphite lines. Using a T-square and stretched strings, and wielding a pencil, Martin drew these lines over the painted canvas. Of this configuration 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). Indeed, these works were as much about dematerialization as concrete geometry: the tremulous, faint grids 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 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 #6 is a celebrated example of Martin's aesthetic from the mid-1980s onwards. Broad, evenly spaced, horizontal bands of close-toned pewter and pale gray, and in other examples warm taupes and blue-grays, lie in a state of perpetual flux. The thin washes of color that characterized her work from the 1970s make way for more tactile surfaces, and the pencil delineations that were visible through the washes of color that characterized her work of the 1970s and early 1980s disappear under the thick coats of paint. While no longer retaining the veil-like ethereality of her earlier work, the present painting nonetheless retains a feeling of expansiveness on account of its cool hues and calm ambiance. Martin's specific process lends her work a chalky matte tonality; colors absorb and reflect light, adding a particular luminescence that appears to disintegrate the painting, 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 gravelly texture recalls the touch of sand. One imagines the artist looking over her New Mexico landscape, inspired by the incandescent and austere quietude of her surroundings.

Like many artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Martin uses abstraction as a tool of revelation. In this respect her work continues the Romantic abstract tradition established by artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Casper David Friedrich, and continued by Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko. But, it 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 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 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.

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