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Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
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Property from a Dallas Collection
Agnes Martin (1912-2004)

Untitled #10

Details
Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
Untitled #10
signed and dated 'a. martin 1985' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 1985.
Provenance
Pace Gallery, New York
Laura Carpenter Fine Art, Santa Fe
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1986
Literature
P. Piguet, "La Vie Des Arts: Paris," L'Oeil, no. 437, December 1991, p. 84 (illustrated in incorrect orientation).
C. D. Mitchell, "A Metaphysics of Simplicity," Art in America, vol. 86, no. 11, November 1998, p. 122 (installation view illustrated).
M. Donovan, "Richard Tuttle and the Comfort of the Unknown," American Art, vol. 20, no. 2, Summer 2006, p. 110 (installation view illustrated).
T. Bell, ed., Agnes Martin Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings, New York, Artifex Press, 2017-ongoing, no. 1985.025 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art, The Idea of North, January-February 1987.
Paris, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Agnes Martin: Peintures 1975-1986, April-May 1987.
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Museum Wiesbaden; Münster, Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte and Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1974-1990, March 1991-January 1992, pp. 129 and 159 (illustrated).
Dallas Museum of Art, 1995-1998 (on loan).
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and SITE Santa Fe, Agnes Martin/Richard Tuttle, April-October 1998, no. 13 (illustrated).
Dallas Museum of Art, 1999-2006 (on loan).

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Lot Essay

One of the most quietly innovative artists working in the mid-20th century, Agnes Martin’s undeniable influence can be felt in the clean lines and geometric forms of Minimalism and its followers. Though initially reductive in its format, the horizontals of Untitled #10 are far detached from the manufactured austerity of artists like Donald Judd, and instead hearken back to Martin’s Abstract Expressionist forebears who prized emotional exercise over purely formal concerns. Imbuing each subtle composition with the essence of light and the air of her adoptive home of New Mexico, Martin’s works reward rumination and careful consideration. Ned Rifkin, former director of the Menil Collection and author of a major text on the artist’s later work, noted, “For more than five decades, Martin has created paintings that are evocations of light, each an individual issuance of ethereal rhythms. Simultaneously powerful and gentle, they are spartan works, beautiful without the slightest adornment. The paintings that Martin has offered us with unstinting consistency are pictures of anything. They are cadences of light, form, and color” (N. Rifkin, “Agnes Martin – The Music of the Spheres,” Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 2002, p. 28). Martin sought to capture the ethereality of existence and to evoke an emotional response through repetitive structure and subdued palettes. Timeless in their seeming simplicity, works like Untitled #10 ask the viewer to surrender to the atmosphere and allow for complete absorption into the artist’s realm.

Executed in Martin’s favored format of a 6-foot square canvas, Untitled #10 is a prime example of the artist’s work in acrylic during the 1980s. Alternating horizontal lines of bluish gray are interspersed with bands of pewter to form an optical plane that undulates in the viewer’s eye. Though bold and even at first glance, further inspection reveals multiple areas where the application of paint is softly textured or the overlapping layers form the slightest bit of evidence of the artist’s hand. The crisp edge of a line is interrupted in the lower left quadrant of the painting by a subtle bleeding of the paint from one tone to the next. These instances are reminders of Martin’s process, and her ideas about finding form in nature and its relevance to her practice. “The Greeks made a great discovery,” she noted. “They discovered that in Nature there are no perfect circles or straight lines or equal spaces. Yet, they discovered that their interest and inclination was in the perfection of circles and lines, and that in their minds they could see them and that they were then able to make them. They realized that the mind knows what the eye has not seen and that what the mind knows is perfection” (A. Martin, quoted in “What we do not see if we do not see,” Agnes Martin: Writings, D. Schwarz (ed.), Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, 1991, p. 117). Though her hand was meticulous and steady, it was inherently deficient because of her humanity. This eschewal of mechanical means in favor of the search for perfection through nature is what makes works like Untitled #10 so transcendent in their ordered restraint. They are imbued with a modest air that rewards slow contemplation with visual discovery. Near to the size of a human body, Martin’s square canvases have a direct relationship to those viewing her paintings. One senses a kinship in these pieces that links the audience to the artist. Each scumble, each brushstroke, no matter how slight or hidden, opens up new possibilities for viewing what at first seems relatively direct in its design.

Martin’s work was especially influential to a young generation of Minimalists, and her delicate use of the line proved revelatory for artists like Sol Lewitt and his trademark wall drawings. Though she never considered herself a Minimalist, Martin’s use of gridded-out spaces, repetitive lines and a subdued palette find their brethren in the forms of Donald Judd and Carl Andre’s metal planes. However, whereas these latter artists were concerned with exacting manufacture and rational line, Martin came from a much more ethereal place. Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “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). By harnessing otherwise strict methods, Martin set herself a formula to follow which allowed for a more meditative and personal result. By doing so, she was able to create a body of work that evolved throughout the years while still remaining relevant and in line with her particular vision.

Born in Canada, Martin was raised in Vancouver, BC and moved to the United States in 1932. After studying at Columbia University in the 1940s and living periodically in New Mexico, she moved to a block of artists’ lofts in Lower Manhattan where she became neighbors with artists like Ellsworth Kelly and James Rosenquist in the 1950s. As part of the artistic milieu, she came into contact with many members of the New York City Avant Garde who were part of the Abstract Expressionists, the early Pop artists, and those who were pushing for new ideas and methods. Her first solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery came in 1958, and from there her gridded, ephemeral paintings were championed by the painter Ad Reinhardt, whose staunch defense of the purity of abstraction fit well with the completely nonrepresentational and formal nature of Martin’s work. Reinhardt’s support and accolades led to Martin’s inclusion in the seminal 1966 exhibition Ten, curated by Robert Smithson at Dwan Gallery, and helped to cement her as a standout of mid-20th century American abstraction. After taking nearly a decade hiatus from painting in the late 1960s to focus on writing, Martin returned with a newfound lust for working in segmented bands of color like those seen in Untitled #10. The artist acknowledged her constant investigation of a seemingly straightforward scheme, noting, “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, quoted in D. Schwartz, Agnes Martin: Writings, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1992, p. 29). Breaking down the primacy of the square canvas, Martin pushed toward the heart of painting. Like her Abstract Expressionist compatriots Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, she believed not so much in the formalist concerns of the artist, but instead in the painter’s ability to evoke feeling and emotion in the viewer through a more intimate and reverential approach to abstraction.

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