This work will be included in an upcoming Catalogue raisonné to be published digitally by Artifex Press.
The ethereal, delicate, non-representational plains of Agnes Martin’s Happy Valley capture not a valley in the conventional sense, but the precise feeling of a valley: the meditative joy precipitated by a valley’s calm. With quiet drama, delicate draughtsmanship, and a subtle vocabulary, Martin creates a nuanced painting that is more infinite field than enclosed form. In Happy Valley, trembling graphite and ink lines and short, brisk white strokes of acrylic paint, applied repeatedly and purposefully, culminate to a pure visual experience that draws on the phenomenological world with the lightest of touches. “It’s really about the feeling of beauty and freedom that you experience in the landscape,” said Martin of her paintings (A. Martin in conversation with Irving Sandler, Art Monthly, no. 169, September 1993, p. 4). The present work, a hallmark 1960s painting, was made during a pivotal year of Martin’s artistic trajectory: her work had reached what she believed to be its full maturity, and a combination of factors including her own growing fame led her to drive across the country, abandoning art-making for seven years. Exhibiting the artist’s distinctive visual vernacular, Happy Valley leverages technical brilliance to reach transcendent emotion: the abstract sublime, the “basis for a sustained spiritual adventure” (P. Schjeldahl, “Brice Marden & Agnes Martin,” Art of Our Time, Alistair Hicks (ed.), London, 1987, p. 37).
Happy Valley calls to mind that eternally cited, endlessly lovely line of Charles Baudelaire’s poem L’Invitation a Voyage: “Là, tout ne qu’ordre et beauté, Luxe, calme, et volupté” (“There, all is order and beauty, Luxury, calm, and voluptuousness”). In this painting, subtly varied lines and delicate tonalities lend themselves to a material sensuality and a sense of nearly imperceptible animation, while a pared-down geometric vocabulary, impersonal brushstrokes, and monochromatic ground maintain a level of coolness and lightness.
Visual harmony overtakes the grounds of the square canvas with slowness and certainty. Jennifer Higgie, Editor-in-Chief of Frieze, writes of Martin’s abstractly geometric work: “Like pale perennials in a Modernist greenhouse, the grid supports the delicacy of her palette, its implication of infinity reinforcing the profound sense of renewal that lay at the heart of her use of repetition: a kind of thoughtfulness that cannot be rushed” (J. Higgie, “A Theory of Relativity,” Frieze, Issue 92, June-August 2005, n.p.). Martin believed that through her use of geometry and the grid, she could empty a work of ego for a purer, even transcendent, state of consciousness. There are certainly Buddhist resonances in the work, though not explicitly. Martin was inspired by the Buddhist and Zen thought that avant-garde artists on the West Coast were exploring at the time, and she personally received lessons from two Taoist sages, Lao Tse and Chuang Tzu.
New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl referred to Martin’s signature gridded monochromes, which she developed in New York in the 1960s—the artist believed that she made her first true grid work in 1964, at the same time as she abandoned oils for acrylic paint—as “rational and sturdy form[s]…which liberated a rich vein of feeling” (P. Schjeldahl, “Brice Marden & Agnes Martin,” Art of Our Time, Alistair Hicks (ed.), London, 1987, p. 37). Artist Ad Reinhardt championed Martin’s new geometric work in the mid-60s, leading to her inclusion in the historic 1966 exhibition Ten, curated by Robert Smithson at Dwan Gallery. As “one of modern art’s most original and most self-effacing artists,” Martin is difficult to pin down (E. Gomez, “Agnes Martin: In Two New Books, A Life Revealed,” Hyperallergic, 4 July 2015, n.p.). Her emphasis on balance speaks to a classical rigor; her non-referential grid structure aligns her with Minimalism; and her all-over compositions evoke Abstract Expressionism. The artist’s work doesn’t only evade classification; it flickers in and out of existence. Martin destroyed the majority of her artistic production, targeting pieces that she believed were somehow inadequate or didn’t fully capture her vision. She wrote about her art frequently and eloquently, as if penning a compulsive poetry. A fascinating figure, Martin was a stringent perfectionist, sometimes only eating one type of food for weeks on end so she could focus on her art, as well as rigorously private, particularly with regards to her homosexuality and her struggle with schizophrenia.
1967, the year in which she painted Happy Valley, was a particularly notable year for Agnes Martin. She abruptly stopped painting and put a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts toward a pickup truck and caravan, which she used to travel the United States and Canada for eighteen months, seemingly without direction. She relocated to a remote mesa in New Mexico where she isolated herself and refrained from painting for several more years. Various potential explanations have emerged for, as the artist’s biographer Nancy Princenthal put it, “the year Martin went rogue.” The South Street Seaport building in New York City that contained Martin’s loft, where she lived by Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, Ann Wilson, Jack Youngerman, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, was going to be destroyed; her dear friend and mentor Ad Reinhardt had died in August of that year; or, as Arne Glimcher proposed, Martin had begun to be overwhelmed by the amount of attention and acclaim that her work was receiving. By 1967 the young Minimalists had taken Martin as their idol (interestingly, she identified as more of an Abstract Expressionist). Donald Judd reviewed two exhibitions of her work; Carl Andre laid metal plates out in grids on the floor, evoking her gridded compositions; and Sol LeWitt drew directly on the wall in a manner evocative of Martin’s direct application of pencil to canvas. Fortunately, following this hiatus Martin returned to painting in the early 1970s, at which point she moved from penciled lattices to the spacious bands of pale color that would come to dominate her work by the mid-1970s.
Much revered in the art world for her technical rigor and uniquely contemplative work, Agnes Martin has been the subject of several retrospectives, most recently the major 2015 Agnes Martin retrospective at the Tate Modern in London which will travel to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, the Los Angeles County Museum, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. She painted works such Happy Valley not only in relation to her own interior experience, but also with potential viewers in mind. In her mid-eighties, Martin said knowingly: “The value of art is in the observer…People who look at my painting say that it makes them happy…And happiness is the goal, isn’t it?” (H. Cotter, “Agnes Martin, Abstract Painter, Dies at 92,” The New York Times, 17 December 2004, n.p.).