This work will be included in an upcoming catalogue raisonné to be published digitally by Artifex Press.
Painted in 1983, Agnes Martin’s Untitled #6 is an essay on how the physical act of painting can evoke the sublime. Each of the elements in this canvas—the scale, the cool palette of ethereal tones, the minimalist composition, and even the process of creating the painting itself—encapsulates Martin’s belief that art should not be a physical act, but should instead be an act of spiritual enlightenment. Rejecting the gesturally expressive actions of her artistic predecessors, she forged a new way to discard centuries of representational artistic creation and instead create beauty out of calm and spirituality.
At first glance, the surface of Untitled #6 appears to be a humble arrangement of ten gray bars, arranged in a column and stacked one on top of another. Yet, the beauty of Martin’s work is not contained wholly within these dominant elements, as is evidenced in the delicate richness present throughout the surface of her canvas. The subtle texture of her worked surfaces, the fragility of the thin graphite lines and the frisson caused when the two meet, leaves the viewer with a feeling of quiet, yet enthralled euphoria. Martin stressed that her paintings “…have neither objects, nor space, nor time, nor anything—no forms,” and that the elicited response was a primitive one, rather than an logical one (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). “Art work is responded to with happy emotions,” she once said. “Our emotional life is really dominant over our intellectual life but we do not realize it” (A. Martin, “Beauty is the Mystery of Life,” in F. Morris & T. Bell, Agnes Martin, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2015, p. 158).
Martin’s early breakthrough works comprised of 6 x 6 foot square canvases (a format that would sustain her through the mid-1980s) covered in monochromatic grounds and overlaid by soft graphite lines. Using a T-square and stretched strings, and wielding a pencil, Martin drew these 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” (A. Martin, quoted 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,” adding that “while even the inventors of abstraction, such as Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian clung to painterly composition, Martin virtually dispensed with this concept altogether. In fact, her paintings were barely paintings at all” (M. Govan, “Agnes Martin,” in L. Cooke and M. Govan, Dia: Beacon, New York, 2003, pp. 209-210).
Untitled #6 is a celebrated example of Martin’s aesthetic of the early 1980s. Broad, evenly spaced, horizontal bands of close-toned pewter and pale gray merge and separate in perpetual flux. Martin’s specific process of mixing acrylic with gesso at once lends her work a matte tonality and adds a particular luminescence. 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.
Like many Romantic artists of the twentieth century, Martin uses abstraction as a tool for revelation. In this respect her work continues the tradition established by Malevich, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Rothko, but differs in one fundamental way: Martin insists that her art is not romantic, but classical. Her aesthetic derives from a variety of sources, ranging from the Bible to the writings of Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu whose formulation of the Tao she has acknowledged as giving her daily sustenance and inspiration. Martin admired Rothko for having reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth. Following his example, she too pared down the forms in her art to their most reductive elements in order to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize a sense of transcendent reality. The grids and lines that Martin derived from this process answered her desire to create a humble art that was empty of ego and yet pointed to the transcendent and the sublime.