AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
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AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
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Property from the Estate of Sondra Gilman
AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)

Untitled #8

AGNES MARTIN (1912-2004)
Untitled #8
signed and dated 'a. martin 1990' (on the reverse)
acrylic and graphite on canvas
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm)
Executed in 1990.
Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1991
T. Bell, ed., Agnes Martin Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings, New York, 2019-ongoing, digital, no. 1990.007 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Agnes Martin/Richard Tuttle, May-June 1992.
London, Serpentine Gallery, Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1977-1991, September-October 1993, pp. 25 and 47 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Agnes Martin’s Untitled #8, painted in 1990, is a prime example of her use of paint and graphite to unearth new truths about perception, experience, intimacy, spirituality, and art history. A poetic instance of her later work (in which she continued to deftly execute large canvases at the age of 78), the present work rejected the gesturally expressive actions of her antecedents and forged a new way to discard centuries of representational artistic creation and create beauty out of calm and otherworldliness. Included in the artist’s important retrospective, Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings 1977-1991, at the Serpentine Gallery in London (the artist’s first public exhibition in Britain in sixteen years), Untitled #8 encapsulates Martin’s belief that art should not be a corporeal act, instead it should be an act of spiritual enlightenment.

In this large-scale painting, bands of grey sit upon a soft white ground uniting and interacting to create a horizon of sorts, a silvery sunrise upon a steely morning in the desert. Six gray stripes almost levitate over the canvas and frame its upper and lower edges, creating an interplay of foreground and background like an ethereal tapestry. There is something natural or biomorphic in Martin’s paintings, according to art historian Anna Chave. We find “patterns as simply repetitive as the rows of wheat grown by her homesteader parents” in rural Saskatchewan, and, of course, there is nothing simple about such a wonderful allusion (A. Chave, “Agnes Martin: On and Off the Grid,” in Agnes Martin: The Islands, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2004, n.p.). We therefore find a sense of motion in stillness, like an orchard, perhaps, a site of earthy, horizontal order within difference. Untitled #8’s regimented, but capacious, forms, as is always the case with Martin’s canvases, become lively, joyful, evocative, and sources of life and sustenance. Though Martin’s work is most often associated with the rural American Southwest, there is also a suggestion in Untitled #8 of the structured forms of the city, such as New York, San Francisco, or Chicago, where one can find unexpected variation and charm within industry, just as one can find a universe within paint, graphite, canvas, and infinitely variable marks. Untitled #8 becomes a musical score, both gridded and malleable, that marks change with love and openness.

It follows that within Untitled #8 we can still see the artist’s hand in the slightly undulating grey bands, which causes the ordered scene to vibrate with Martin’s agency and intentionality. Returning to Chave, she argues, “Like the Abstract Expressionists and unlike, say, Minimalist Sol LeWitt, Martin invariably rendered her grids by hand; and even as she drew her graphite lines as straight as possible, she valued the hand’s insinuation, however subtle, of the self into the work” (A. Chave, “Agnes Martin: On and Off the Grid,” in Agnes Martin: The Islands, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2004, n.p.). Untitled #8 therefore pushes the boundaries of what could be considered dynamic and demonstrative and what is ordered and reticent. If a connection to Abstract Expressionism can indeed be made, Untitled #8 becomes visually akin to Jackson Pollock’s horizontal, mural-like paintings or Mark Rothko’s explorations of color and optics, themselves reminiscent of tapestries. At the same time, we might compare Untitled #8 to Donald Judd’s Untitled (Stack) of 1967. Interestingly, Martin’s paintings, at her request, are installed with Judd’s benches at the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico. Martin is therefore between a multiplicity of visual forms and art histories, as well as the emotional configurations they imply. Untitled #8 is an aspiration to expressiveness and variation within allegedly mute, repetitive forms, somewhere between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, but a visual language all her own. Art historian Richard Shiff has even suggested that “Minimalism and Expressionism have passed into history. Martin’s art remains—quite innocent of that history” (R. Shiff, “Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond,” Artforum, April 2002, p. 131).

A 2007 exhibition at Dia: Beacon argued that the moment of Untitled #8’s creation in 1990 was a brief, but formative period, where Martin preferred an “austere vocabulary of dense and opaque stripes” (Dia: Beacon, “Agnes Martin: Homage to [a] Life: Paintings 1990-2004,” New York, n.p.). Yet, as Martin’s work has always evinced, within austerity is sensuality, spirituality, tenderness, hope, and tenacity. In 1993, not long after the execution of Untitled #8, Martin reduced the size of her canvases to five-foot square because, at age 81 and always preferring to work in solitude, she could not handle the six-foot square canvases, like Untitled #8, on her own. So, Martin’s paintings of the early 1990s, of which Untitled #8 is exemplary, become an essential moment of rest, distillation, and continued art historical inquiry that set the stage for her final decade.

Martin wrote in a poem of sorts, “When your eyes are open/you see beauty in anything” (A. Martin and D. Schwarz, Agnes Martin: Writings, Ostfildern, 1991, p. 39). Untitled #8 undoubtedly opens our eyes, allowing us to see beauty in all that is understated, ethereal, and transitional. In fact, Martin has always shown us that it is in the most unassuming places that we can find heretofore unseen and wonderful things. Martin’s close looking, a lifelong process of finding inspiration and tenderness where it might be overlooked, is an empowering feat, one that helps us as viewers and people to find compassion and to see beyond a quiet exterior. Martin asks us to practice looking, just as she asks us to practice empathy.

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