“Of all the pitfalls in our paths and the tremendous delays and wanderings off the track, I want to say that they are not what they seem to be. I want to say that all that seems like fantastic mistakes are not mistakes; all that seems like error is not error. And it all has to be done. That which seems like a false step is the next step.” – Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin was in her thirties when she decided to become an artist and for over four decades, she created elegant, perfectly square paintings using mostly grids and stripes. From a distance, you might say that Martin simply painted the same thing again and again, with subtle, almost endless variations. But the details—how the lines were created, the tone, depth, proportion, texture—were what brought the abstract beauty to the forefront. “I paint with my back to the world,” she said.
Her early artwork included portraits, landscapes, and still life paintings, but through her studies at the University of New Mexico and Columbia University, she was introduced to Taoist ideas and Zen philosophy, which would inform her artwork from then on, as she was drawn toward the concepts of abstraction. She began to focus on the grid format not to exclude nature, but to include it. “It’s really about the feeling of beauty and freedom that you experience in landscape.” Her grids were repetitive, but with subtle differences. Her paintings were like her observations of clouds passing above her head. “I paid close attention for a month to see if they ever repeated,” she said. “They don’t repeat.”
After a number of years working as an artist, Martin abruptly abandoned the New York art world and gave away her materials, resurfacing in New Mexico a year and a half later. When she returned to painting, about 5 years later, the grids had evolved into horizontal or vertical lines and her pale, neutral color palette was replaced by pale pinks, blues, and yellows—a reflection of the desert landscape.
In New Mexico, Martin lived a stark, near-monastic existence with an intense focus on spiritual awareness. When she was finally ready to return to New York, she found a space in a studio community located in abandoned shipping lofts in lower Manhattan known as the Coenties Slip—also home to Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Rauschenberg. It was during this time that the mental illness she’d managed for years became more pronounced and she was hospitalized on multiple occasions. She was once found wandering Park Avenue, completely unaware of who she was, and admitted to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital; there, before she was discovered by friends, she was given shock therapy.
Martin, with her cropped silver hair and solid physical presence, worked up until a few months before her death in 2004, at age 92. As she aged, her artwork became more vibrant and full of new shapes and colors than in her younger years. She said, “My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.”
The Solomon Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition of Agnes Martin’s work allowed us to enjoy the qualities Martin always sought to portray: beauty, innocence, and happiness.
Images pictured above are from Agnes Martin.