WOMEN IN ART SERIES #13
“The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself”
Agnes Martin was born in 1912, the same year as Jackson Pollock. This was the year Arizona became the 48th state, the Titanic sunk, and Fenway Park opened in Boston.
Born in Saskatchewan, growing up in Vancouver, she moved to the US in 1931, became an American citizen in 1940 and earned her B.A. in 1942 from Teachers College, Columbia University. She briefly taught art at the University of New Mexico. While there, she participated in a painting program in Taos eventually opening a studio there (which she lived in).
About this time, the legendary Betty Parson’s came into the picture. She offered her a solo show in New York but only if she moved back to New York! With the help of artist Ellsworth Kelly, she found a loft at Coentis Slip located in the financial district of Lower Manhatten. What a magical place this probably was – with Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and others taking up residence here.
After her promised solo show at the Parson’s Gallery, Martin seemed to find her own voice. The London Times stated her method included:
“a square format; canvas primed with two layers of gesso; hand-drawn pencil lines; thin layers of paint, first in oils, then in acrylic which she preferred because it was much quicker to dry.”
Settling into this method, her work became critically acclaimed and also was much sought after. But, she found the New York art world too much to handle. Since Coentis Slip was to be demolished in 1967, Agnes Martin decided to leave the art world. She gave away most everything (including art supplies) and traveled the United States and Canada. She did not paint for SEVEN YEARS!
Lucky for us, she began painting again in 1974. Her paintings became smaller so she could move them herself. Larger paintings would have required an assistant, something she did not want.
Let’s take a step back back to her undergraduate years at Columbia University. She began going to lectures by Zen Buddhist scholars. What she learned at this time was reflected in her lifestyle for the remainder of the her life. She prefered to live a simple, quiet and somewhat singular life. This is reflected in her own words:
“I often paint tranquility. If you stop thinking and rest, then a little happiness comes into your mind. At perfect rest you are comfortable.”
Often referred to as a minimalist by others, she described herself as an abstract expressionist. In her work, she placed emphasis on the line, the grid and extremely subtle colors. They were drawn freehand and the flaws remain (she didn’t even use a ruler!).
About this time, Martin began trying to locate her earlier work, wanting to destroy them all – in fact she wanted to burn them! Karen Yank, a sculptor and former student, told her it was okay to have a few of the earlier works out in the world, it would give young artists that are struggling some hope.
“When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then a 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. I thought, this is my vision.”
Some of her awards include:
- Named one of the “100 Women of Achievement by Harper’s Bazaar in 1967
- Inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters
- Awarded the National Medal of Arts from the NEA
- Awarded the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Biennale
She died in her home in Taos at the age of 92.
“there are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know – – exactly what you want…Doing what you were born to do…That’s the way to be happy.”
“I’m an empty mind. When something comes into it, you can see it.”
“the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone”
“Art is responded to with emotion…and the best art is music – – that’s the highest form of art. It’s completely abstract, and we make about eight times as much response to music than any of the other arts.”
“Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings”
Of Rothko, he has:
“reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth.”
Next up – the letter “N”!