press release

Agnes Martin: Trajectories

In the mid-1960s, Agnes Martin was lauded as a herald of the cool geometric Minimalism that was emerging in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism, but she herself declined that claim, for she saw the Minimalist approach as impersonal and dispassionate. Her disarmingly reticent abstractions use a combination of ideal geometry and the lightest touch of the artist’s hand to achieve an unexpected pitch of emotion and feeling.

Martin, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, as a student in the 1940s was drawn to the arid, open landscape of New Mexico. The vast Southwestern desert became a defining experience for her, “I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought/my mountains looked like ant hills/I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought/the plain had it/just the plane,” as she later described. In her mature work, from the early sixties onwards, Martin dematerializes the canvas into a transparent, nonhierarchical field of vision, perhaps suggesting the experience (rather than the image) of this desert landscape.

By the end of the 1950s Martin’s signature mode had emerged, a spare, muted palette and geometric vocabulary deployed across a square format (for example, Window, 1957). The repetitive marks and lines of the continuous allover grid paintings that Martin began in the early 1960s earned her the reputation of being an inspiration for the Minimalists. Yet the grid that underlies these paintings is, as the artist says, never mechanical and never rigid. Through simple geometry, she found she could pursue a classical perfection that she described as removed from nature, held only in the mind—drawn rectangles, squares, and grids in pencil dispensed with traditional notions of composition. Tightly echoing the weave of her square canvases, paintings such as The Beach (1963), seem to merge Platonic geometry with an egoless Taoist meditation. Finding New York City too distracting, Martin moved permanently to the Southwest in 1967. While giving up painting for close to a decade, she built an adobe house on a deserted mesa, where she pursued isolation as a means of seeking inspiration.

Employing the subtlest of hues, both delicate pastels and light grey washes, Martin’s late paintings seem to emanate light rather than reflect it. In her 1999 Innocent Love series, gently insistent horizontal lines, bounding the color washes, suggest an infinite space beyond the frames of the five-foot-square canvases. The theme of innocent love may be related to the artist’s descriptions of the “untroubled state of mind” (often referred to in her journals) that allows for “moments of inspiration,” which “added together make what we call sensibility.” Innocent and untroubled, young children, in Martin’s view, have many more inspirations than adults: such notions perhaps also contribute to the ethereal tone of these elusive yet effulgent works.

Nonetheless, the works at the end of a fertile career spanning more than forty years often contain elements first explored at the time of her formation, the late 1950s. Such unanticipated parallels include a brief return to an ominous black that now conceals more than it reveals: compare, for example, Untitled #17, 2002 with Untitled, c. 1957, which is hanging to its left, and Earth, 1959, on its right flank. By means of such juxtapositions, “Trajectories” (December 1, 2007—September 1, 2008) highlights the unexpected but rich dialogue that links these crucial periods in her art and life.

Lynne Cooke

Agnes Martin
Kurtaor: Lynne Cooke

Agnes Martin: Trajectories

December 1, 2007 - April 13, 2009

Agnes Martin: Homage to [a] Life: Paintings 1990-2004

April 6, 2007 - November 26, 2007

Agnes Martin: A Field of Vision: Paintings from the 1980s

August 3, 2006 - March 5, 2007

Agnes Martin: "...unknown territory..." Paintings from the 1960s

April 15, 2006 - November 7, 2006

Agnes Martin: To the Islands: Paintings 1974-79
December 2, 2005 - June 26, 2006