Premier abstract painter for almost half a century, Agnes Martin has been a serene and luminous presence in Post-War 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 brushstrokes. 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. Minimalist vocabulary in Martin's hands becomes more akin to the Romantic tradition of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. A characteristically understated yet powerfully evocative work, Untitled is an exquisite reconciliation of such dichotomies.
Born and raised in Canada, Martin moved to the US in 1931, at age 19, to train as a teacher. Through the 1940s and 1950s, she lived in various parts of the US, interspersing teaching assignments with periods of painting. On being offered her first solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York in 1958, she moved back to the city, relocating to the Coenties Slip section of lower Manhattan, which was a thriving artistic hub. Developing her geometric vocabulary over the late 1950s, she settled on her unique style in the early 1960s.
Her early breakthrough works comprised of 6x6 foot square canvases (a format that would sustain Martin through the mid-1980s) covered in monochromatic grounds and overlaid by soft graphite grids. Using a T-square and stretched strings, and wielding a pencil, Martin drew vertical and horizontal lines over the painted canvas, producing an allover rectangular grid. 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" (Agnes 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 Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian clung to painterly composition, Martin virtually dispensed with this concept altogether. In fact, her paintings were barely paintings at all (Michael Govan, "Agnes Martin," in Lynne Cooke and Michael Govan, Dia: Beacon, New York, 2003, pp. 209-210).
While maintaining the vocabulary of the grid, Martin's compositions had become more expansive, her execution more painterly in the works from the 1970s and 80s, and her use of color more liberal. The minute, delicate structural divisions that could only be apprehended up-close had given way to wider horizontal or vertical bands that lent the works a more elastic, open feeling. Soft washes of lightly tinted color had become predominant over her delicate pencil delineations. The thinned layers of translucent and delicate pastel hues appeared to dematerialize her surfaces and produce a kind of ethereal radiance as though light was emanating from the canvas itself. It seemed as though the landscape of New Mexico had left their indelible mark on her paintings, suffusing them suggestions of open sky, desert sand and their characteristically brilliant light.
Untitled is a glorious example of Martin's aesthetic of the mid-1980s. Broad, evenly spaced, horizontal bands of close-toned pewter and pale gray merge and separate in perpetual flux. The thin washes of color that characterized her work from the 1970s make way for a thick, tactile surface produced by the fanning strokes of a palette knife. 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, Untitled nonetheless retains a feeling of expansiveness on account of its cool hues and effulgent ambiance. Martin's specific process of mixing acrylic with gesso lends her work a chalky white 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 the New Mexico landscape, inspired by the incandescent and austere quietude of her surroundings.
Describing her work, Martin stated, "My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything--no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form" (Agnes Martin in N. Rifkin, "Preface--Visiting Agnes," N. Rifkin and Edward Hirsch, Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 2002, pp. 14-15). Emptied of image, narrative and meaning in any conventional sense, these works were nonetheless expansive in their evocation of beauty, peace, happiness, and a spiritual sublime. Untitled is exemplar of the myriad of emotions Martin conveys in her characteristically gentle and unassuming manner.