Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin was born in Maklin, Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912 into a family whose ancestors were Scottish Presbyterians. Her father died when she was two and her mother eventually moved the family to Vancouver where Martin’s maternal grandfather helped to raise her and her brother.  A deeply religious man, he read to them from the Bible and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, works which were to have a profound influence on Agnes Martin throughout her life.

Martin moved to the United States in 1931, becoming a US citizen in 1950.  Although she had always had an interest in art, she opted to study art education and attended the Western Washington College of Education in Bellingham, Washington from 1935 to 1938.  She embarked on a teaching career and then transferred to the Teachers College at Columbia University where she gained both a Bachelors and a Masters degree.

Although working as a teacher, Agnes Martin remained an artist at heart.  She was aware of the work of the abstract expressionists at that time and their style and approach appealed to her.  In 1954 she moved to Taos in New Mexico, and continued to develop her own style, producing her first semi-abstract work there.

Her work came to the attention of Betty Parsons who invited her to show in her gallery on condition that she return to New York.  Martin agreed and had her first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1958.

New York 1950s and 1960s

In the New York of the late 1950s and 1960s, Agnes Martin was part of a small group of young artists which included Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg who all lived in the same derelict building on Coentis Slip.   During this time, she developed a fully abstract style based on tight grids and repetitive linear marks.

The demolition of the building in 1967 resulted in her leaving New York abruptly.   Despite the fact that her career was taking off at that time, she felt that she couldn’t work in any other space in the city and she was ill-at-ease in the competitive New York art scene of the time.  She led an unsettled existence for the next few years, moving from place to place across the United States. She didn't make art again for seven years.

A Home in Taos, New Mexico

In 1974, Martin finally settled in New Mexico, building an adobe  home for herself in a remote part where she was often cut off by snow for months on end.  She began to paint again and her work resumed its popularity.

A loner by nature, she was interested in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and although not interested in the practice of the religion, she admired its belief system and its calm, non-aggressive approach to life.

Once she resumed her painting career again, Agnes Martin worked consistently until her death in 2004.   She worked on large, six-foot square canvases, drawing horizontal pencil lines and painted bands of color, using energetic but subtle brushstrokes. In one series she would opt to use pale colors and then in the next series would choose black, white or gray.


She also lectured from time to time and her thoughts on life and art were published in 1992 in a book entitled ‘Writings’.   She felt she did not work from ideas but from inspiration.  She considered her work to be ‘inspired’ and therefore not something she could take credit for, although she was happy to assume responsibility for the end result. 

Martin said that her paintings were concerned with the human desire for peace and serenity.  Art, for her, was a means of making the chaotic calm and bringing stability to a very unpredictable and unsettling world. Her writings are considered by many to be an essential companion to her art – providing the viewer with an insight into her vision of the world.

The Joy in Art

Agnes Martin encourages us to look through her paintings and see beyond them into another dimension.  The grids, the height, width and depth of her paintings are a doorway into this fourth dimension which lies beyond our reality and where we will find peace and joy.  Appreciating art taught you something about yourself and good art, art you loved, could make you happy.

Agnes Martin had two major retrospectives.  The first one was in 1973 at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and the second one was in 1992 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

She received numerous awards for her contribution to art and was named one of the ‘100 Women of Achievement’ in 1967 by Harper’s Bazaar.  She received a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Biennale.  Most of the major museums in the United States have her work in their collections.

Agnes Martin died in Taos, New Mexico in 2004.

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