Agnes Martin – Women Who Influenced Margaret

“My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent,
and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in artwork, which is also wordless and silent.”
– Agnes Martin

I recently decided to start writing about women painters. While I know this has been done, these blogs focus specifically on women painters that have influenced me. There are of course many male painters that I’m influenced by as well (I recently wrote two blogs on Richard Diebenkorn), but as a female painter I feel, to some degree, drawn to their perspective. I truly believe that “painter” is a “thing,” it is a way of life that transcends “male” and “female.” Nevertheless, I also believe that women bring to that way of life, a different perspective—a viewpoint born out of social norms, cultural expectations, and a myriad of other things that differ from the “male experience.” So, without further ado, here is…

Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin described herself as an abstract expressionist, but is usually linked with minimalism, and in particular, with artists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. A non-representational artist, her search for “spiritual otherness” and “the sublime” came into being, like the two aforementioned artists, through simplicity—through simple geometry and luminescent washes of color.

Agnes Martin Harbor Number 1

Agnes Martin
Harbor Number 1, 1957
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Agnes Martin was born in 1912, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The child of Scottish Presbyterian pioneers. She had a difficult upbringing, and grew up with a mother who she said “used silence as a weapon,” and enjoyed “seeing people hurt.” But, as Agnes pointed out, her mother’s sternness did result in a self-discipline that would serve her well throughout life.

As an artist, Agnes was a late bloomer, training first as a teacher, and only later studying fine arts at Teachers College, Columbia University at the age of 29. In 1957, at the age of 45, she moved into an artist’s community on the waterfront of lower Manhattan that included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Ellsworth Kelly. It was around this time, and in particular during the 1960s, that she began creating those paintings with which she became most closely associated. Of her first (acknowledged) grid paintings—entitled, The Tree—Agnes said, “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.” Using acrylics to create washes of luminosity, the focus of these paintings could be viewed as the creation of a dialogue between grid and color, form and formlessness, stasis and change.

Agnes Martin The Tree

Agnes Martin
The Tree, 1964
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Her aesthetic was that of the sublime infiniteness of light, space and time. With her work, she went forward into unknown territory, describing her paintings as having “neither object, nor space, nor line, nor anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging; about formlessness…it is to accept the necessity of the simple, the direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”

In 1967, she walked away from art (and New York City) altogether and disappeared for 18 months. When she did re-emerge, it was in Cuba, New Mexico, where she would end up building a one-room adobe home and attached log-cabin style studio on an isolated mesa, 20 miles from the nearest paved road. From 1968-73, she lived the aesthetic that had so permeated her art, and slowly moved toward painting again, eventually returning to painting full time in 1974.

Agnes Martin continued to paint throughout the rest of her life. From 1974 on, her paintings were comprised of bold, bands of color, the emptiness within each band reflecting the vast New Mexico expanses that surrounded her for the last 30 years of her life. In her final years objects began to return to her paintings as well. In what must be one of her most arresting paintings, Homage to Life, a black trapezoid hangs ominously in front of a field of shifting greys, perhaps pointing to the isolation that marked so much of her existence. 

Agnes Martin died in 2004 in Taos, New Mexico. Her ashes were secretly buried beneath the roots of an old apricot tree, just outside of a room that housed several paintings she had donated to the Harwood Museum.

Agnes Martin Untitled Number 5

Agnes Martin
Untitled 5, 1998
Museum of Modern Art, New York

While my paintings are quite different, I do feel connected to Agnes Martin’s work conceptually, and perhaps one of the clearest ways I could demonstrate this connection is by quoting other peoples descriptions of Agnes’ work. Her paintings have been described as being “evocative of light” and comprised of “ethereal rhythms,” they’ve likewise been described as “powerful and gentle…not pictures of anything—but cadences of light, form, and color—like silent sounds.”

My paintings often do relate to “things,” so there is that major difference. Additionally, the austerity that is associated with her work could not necessarily be connected to mine. However, as I have written before, the few visual motifs that I do use allow me, like Agnes, to explore the “cadences of light, form, and color” that truly interest me. Our paintings may look quite different—her paintings are geometric and simple, my own, fluid and vibrant—but we are both, in a sense, attempting to capture the atmosphere of those passing moments in life, which remain forever fixed in memory, or as Agnes said it, “It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”

Agnes Martin Homage To Life

Agnes Martin
Homage to Life, 2003
Pace Gallery, New York

I would like to conclude this essay with a beautiful, insightful and appropriately ascetic poem about Agnes’ work by the (male) poet Edward Hirsch:

A horizontal line is a pilgrimage
A segment of devotion wrested from time
An infinitely gentle mark on a blank page
the strip remains after everything else is gone
It is a wisp of praise with a human hand
It is singing on bare canvas

Agnes Martin