Life and Work of Agnes Martin, Pioneer of Minimalist Art

Agnes Martin stands in an art studio with level and ladder

Alexander Liberman, Agnes Martin with level and ladder, 1960. Alexander Liberman Photography Archive, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. © J. Paul Getty Trust

 

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was an American painter, most notable for her role as a pioneer of the abstract movement known as Minimalism. Best known for her now iconic grid paintings, she is also known for her role in the development of the Modernist artist community in Taos, New Mexico and its environs.

Early Life

Agnes Martin in her studio in Taos, New Mexico in 1953. Mildred Tolbert, 1953. The Harwood Museum of Art, Gift of Mildred Tolbert. © Mildred Tolbert Family.

Born in 1912 in Saskatchewan, Canada, Martin grew up on the often unforgiving frontier of the North American West. Her childhood was characterized by the bleak endlessness of the plains, where she, her parents, and her three siblings lived on a working farm.

Records of Martin’s father are minimal, though they place his death around the time Agnes was a toddler. From then on her mother ruled with an iron fist. In her daughter's words, Margaret Martin was a “tremendous disciplinarian” who “hated” young Agnes because she “interfered with her social life” (Princenthal, 24). Perhaps her somewhat unhappy home life accounted for the artist’s later personality and behavior.

Martin’s youth was itinerant; after her father’s death, her family moved to Calgary and then to Vancouver. Though still a Canadian citizen, Martin would move to Bellingham, Washington to attend high school. There she was an avid swimmer, and just fell short of making the Canadian Olympic team.

Education and Early Career

After graduating from high school, Martin received her teachers’ license after three years of study, after which she taught grade school in rural Washington State. She would eventually move to New York to attend Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she studied studio art and studio art education until 1942. She became a citizen of the United States in 1950, at the age of 38.

Martin then moved to the burgeoning artistic community of Taos, New Mexico (where Georgia O’Keefe had lived since 1929), and there she befriended many of the growing group of Southwestern artists, among them Beatrice Mandleman and her husband Louis Ribak. These connections proved instrumental later in life, when she decided to settle in New Mexico, a place to which many attribute Martin’s spare but vibrant Minimalism — though in fact she began to develop this signature style upon her return to New York. 

New York: Life on Coenties Strip

Agnes Martin, The Spring, 1958. Dia Art Foundation; Anonymous gift. © Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

Martin’s return to New York in 1956, commercially supported by the gallerist Betty Parsons, was defined by a new society of artists, as the Abstract Expressionist dominion of the late 1940s and early 50s was beginning to wane. Martin found her place in Coenties Slip, a loosely affiliated group of artists living in the decrepit buildings surrounding South Street Seaport. Her peers included Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Lenore Tawney, and Chryssa, a Greek immigrant and artist who soon ascended to artistic fame. With the latter two artists she was known to have close relations, which some speculate to have been romantic, though Martin never spoke publicly on the issue.

The decade Martin spent living among the artists of Coenties Slip influenced the development of the painter’s mature style. The hard edge abstraction of Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly revealed itself in her work, though, of course, the innovation of the grid motif was of her own devising and first appeared in 1958. The grid would later define her oeuvre. She was forty-eight at the time, older than most of her peers at the Slip and somewhat of a role model for many of them.

Return to New Mexico

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1977. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 9 x 9 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, The American Art Foundation, 1978. © Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Martin’s time in New York, though marked by commercial and artistic success, came to an end after a decade. Citing the demolition of the building in which she lived and worked (though others suspect her sudden departure was due to a psychotic episode associated with Martin’s schizophrenia), Martin left the East Coast and headed West. What followed were almost five years in which, true to the patterns of her youth, she was itinerant, traveling as far away as India, as well as throughout the Western United States. She did not produce a single painting during this time.

Martin returned to New Mexico in 1968. Though the content and formatting of her work ostensibly changed little throughout this period, the variations in color and geometry (most notably a shift toward pastel stripes in the 1970s) changed according to her change in environment.

Later Life and Legacy

Agnes Martin, Untitled #15, 1988. Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas, 182.9 x 182.9 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Gift of The American Art Foundation in honor of Charlotte and Irving Rabb, 1997. © Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Martin spent her later years working mostly in solitude, accepting the occasional visitor: sometimes old friends, but with increasing regularity, scholars and critics, many of whom were interested in the artist’s living and working conditions. With critical, commercial and art historical acclaim, Martin died at the age of 92 in 2004.

Accounts of Agnes Martin's legacy are often contradictory, and many critics’ interpretation of her work belie the artist’s own commentary. She only begrudgingly accepted the accreditation as one of the integral pillars of the Minimalist movement; in fact, she denied many of the labels and interpretations foisted on her work.

While it is tempting to read figuration in her abstracted canvases of subtly colored lines and grids, Martin herself insisted they were representations of something more difficult to pin down: they might be representations of the states of being, visions, or even, perhaps, the infinite.

To investigate Martin's life is to analyze an enigmatic existence, one characterized by itinerancy and loosely kept relationships, surrounded by speculation. But all the better — to know only vaguely the inner life of Martin makes for a better experience of her painting. If we knew her biography too well, the temptation to interpret her work through it would be irresistible. Instead we are left with few clues, and can only behold these canvases — precisely as Martin intended it.

Agnes Martin Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Agnes Bernice Martin
  • Occupation: Painter (Minimalism)
  • Born: March 22, 1912 in Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • Died: December 16, 2004 in Taos, New Mexico, U.S.
  • Key Accomplishments: Martin produced now-iconic grid paintings and pioneered the abstract movement known as Minimalism.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Glimcher, Arne. Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances. London: Phaidon Press, 2012.
  • Haskell, Barbara, Anna C. Chave, and Rosalind Krauss. Agnes Martin. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992.
  • Princenthal, Nancy. Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.