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

Untitled #9

Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
Untitled #9
signed and dated 'a. Martin 1988' (on the reverse)
acrylic and graphite on canvas
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 1988.
Pace Gallery, New York
Private collection, London
PaceWildenstein, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, Pace Gallery, Agnes Martin: New Paintings, January-February 1989.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Agnes Martin: Recent Paintings, July-September 1989.
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Agnes Martin/Donald Judd, October 1989-February 1990.
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work will be included in an upcoming catalogue raisonné to be published digitally by Artifex Press.

Untitled No. 9 is one of Agnes Martin’s sublime canvases from the late 1980s, which fulfilled her avowed intention to “have neither objects, nor space, nor time, nor anything—no forms” (A. Martin, quoted in A. Lovatt, “In Pursuit of the Neutral: Agnes Martin’s Shimmering Line,” F. Morris & T. Bell, Agnes Martin, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2015, p. 104). Comprised of a series of graphite lines, interspersed with two painted bands of blue-gray pigment, this work speaks to the quiet beauty that is inherent in many of her best canvases. Upon her lightly gessoed surface Martin lays down a series of gossamer thin lines that traverse the canvas from left to right. Beginning and ending an inch inward from the turning edge of the canvas, these delicate marks appear to float on top of the textured surface with the consistency of Martin’s pristine line, interrupted only when the textured surface of the gesso discreetly diverts the path of her pencil. Between two of these sets of lines, Martin fills in the void with an area of blue-grey pigment, giving a sense of depth and substance to what otherwise would have been a seemingly empty void.

During her forty-year career Martin explored her perceptions of truth and beauty by using a simple grid that annulled the complications of conventional space. Her early upbringing in the vast open plains of Canada and her formal training at university in New Mexico gave her an almost mystical understanding of tranquility, space and a deep appreciation of the spiritual forces of nature. Deeply personal, her compositions of simple, almost invisible colors, combine with gossamer horizontal or vertical lines evolved 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.

Martin always claimed that her art was not an expressive act. It was not meant to be a reflection of her feelings, thoughts, emotions or even a treatise on how art could change the world; “It is not in the role of an artist to worry about life,” she once said, or “to feel responsible for creating a better world. This is a very serious distraction. All of your conditioning has been directed toward intellectual living. This is useless in art work. Concepts, relationships, categories, classifications, deductions are distractions of mind that we wish to hold free for inspiration” (A. Martin, “Beauty is the Mystery of Life,” ibid., p. 158). Her quiet compositions were intended to project their own beauty, a beauty which came from having been freed from any external influences. Martin saw a beauty in emptiness, and a quiet stillness that was in stark contrast to much of the machismo of the art world at the time. In this, she had much in common with her friend and fellow artist Richard Tuttle. They shared a desire to transcend the self in pursuit of a more enlightened mode of perception. “[It] has very little to do with do with artistic signature, about me expressing myself to you,” he said. “It’s an attitude about getting beyond both of us to be able to see basic structures of reality. That’s where Agnes and I come together” (R. Tuttle, quoted in A. Lovatt, op. cit., p. 105).

One of the most influential painters of the last half-century, Agnes Martin has been a serene and luminous presence in postwar art. Her deceptively simple work straddles several seemingly irreconcilable polarities to achieve its unique aesthetic vision. The rigidness of geometric order is counterbalanced by the humanity of touch, evinced by the tactility of the surface and graphite lines that traverse it. The objective clarity of the Modernist grid is subtly transformed into portals of subjective spiritual sensibility. Mathematical order is used to convey the classical perfection that is absent in nature, but is nonetheless evocative of landscape, and the minimalist vocabulary in Martin’s hands, which becomes more akin to the Romantic tradition of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. A characteristically understated yet powerfully evocative work, Untitled No. 9 is an exquisite reconciliation of such dichotomies.

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