Lines of Thought

Agnes Martin: The Islands, 1961, oil and graphite on canvas, 72 inches square. Private collection.

All images in this slideshow © Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Although associated with Minimalism, Agnes Martin endeavored to express universal conditions of being in her work.


The traveling survey of Agnes Martin’s work that debuted this summer at Tate Modern in London offers an opportunity to reconsider an artist who seems easy to know. Martin is generally pictured as a sage of the desert dispensing measured lines of graphite, pale paint and gnomic prose with ritual changelessness. In and around New York, she is perhaps best known as one of those select few whose work is semi-permanently enshrined at Dia:Beacon, high church of Minimalism and citadel against all forms of personal contingency. To lay out the narrative arc of Martin’s development, as the present exhibition does, is a welcome corrective. 

Organized by the Tate’s Frances Morris and independent curator Tiffany Bell, who together oversaw the lucid installation in London, this first major show since Martin’s death in 2004 was conceived with new freedom. Martin was notoriously touchy about exhibitions (in particular, their catalogues, which she did her best to prohibit), but she was ambitious enough, and canny enough, to have maintained a secure place in the public eye during the latter part of her life. Like many artists, she tried to cover the traces of initial efforts and later false starts, and had considerable success. Examples of the early work known to exist—figurative paintings and works on paper from the 1940s—were shown at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, N.M., in 2012. (The exhibition traveled to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.) These first paintings include watercolor renderings, sprightly and fresh, of the desert landscape in New Mexico, where the Canada-born artist first lived from the middle 1940s until 1957, and a handful of portraits. Heavily painted and impassive in expression, the latter suggest an artist wrestling rather grimly with the depiction of human subjects. It’s not hard to see why Martin did her level best to destroy these works, and they are not in the present show. 1

She was less successful in controlling how her mature works—the large grids and striped compositions—were positioned. Although her identification with Minimalism seems nearly impossible to shake, Martin’s true affinity was with her Abstract Expressionist peers (she was born in 1912, the same year as Jackson Pollock), and the current survey may help confirm that association. Not that Martin is here revealed to have begun with slashing brushstrokes or demonstrative pours and splatters. But she did share with the New York School painters a commitment to expressing such universal states as joy and innocence, and also a long dalliance with Surrealism that this exhibition clearly demonstrates. 

After an introductory look at a clutch of Martin’s late stripe paintings, the survey turns to her biomorphic abstraction of the mid- and late 1950s, along with a number of three-dimensional works. The ’50s is roughly where the last major retrospective, which originated at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992, began, but there are surprises here. The sharpest come in a tightly installed room of assemblages and other small works. The Wave (1963) is a small game-board-like sculpture of plexiglass, wood and beads; if it were tilted, the beads would fall across its grooved surface. The connection to play, a favorite Surrealist motif, is also inescapable in the paint-on-paper-on-canvas Dominoes (1960), in which images of the titular game’s tiles are framed in an auspicious grid between two looming brown orbs. Leaning a little insolently against the wall, The Laws (1958), an imposingly tall wooden plank divided horizontally at its midpoint, bears in its upper field 10 even rows of boat spikes, another prefiguration of the painted grids. Water (1958) anticipates the later paintings, too, in its arrangement of nine flattened bottle caps, evenly spaced on a field of wire strung across wood. Least known of these three-dimensional works is a rather fearsome construction of 1961 involving two short, broad wooden cylinders, the larger stacked on top and ringed with a crown of inward-curving wooden hooks, each tip sheathed in metal. The effect suggests a Viking helmet; its title, Burning Tree, names another association its flamelike crown elicits. Together, the works in this room, including small paintings that anticipate coming geometries, evoke secular relics: amid the more seemly abstractions-in-the-making, we see the artist’s accessories and intimate playthings. Small wonder that Martin suppressed these pieces, too, powerful and fascinating though they are.

A more familiar story resumes with the transition from organic abstraction to more precisely drawn forms and patterns. Martin spent a single decade working in New York, from 1957 to 1967—she moved east from Taos at age 45—and during that time, her painting developed with fairly explosive speed. Soft-edge, floating shapes in subtle colors straddle the move; a shift in hue is visible, however, from the adobe and earth shades of an untitled oil and graphite on gypsum of ca. 1954 to the gray-green tones recalling New York’s seaport in Harbor No. 1 (1957) and related compositions. A handful of Rothko-esque stacked rectangles appeared in the late ’50s along with compositions organized around circles, all of which Martin would soon reject. There are also paintings from those years in which she drew into a thick layer of white paint with pencil, creating incised patterns that include fringed grids and the lapped featherlike lozenges of the splendid The Heavenly Race (Running), ca. 1959. 

By the early 1960s, the ordered grids and parallel lines with which she had been experimenting on paper led to the first of the paintings for which she gained acclaim. The closely ruled square fields initially stopped short of the paintings’ edges. In The Islands (1961), a painting at once regulated and brimming, frames within frames contain a flurry of white dashes inside a penciled grid on a raw, light-brown canvas. This and other internally framed compositions, such as White Flower (1960), were soon followed by such shimmering, unbounded fields as the anomalous gold-leafed (and rarely exhibited) Friendship (1963). Scarcely less luminous, The Tree (1964) and Morning (1965) feature penciled grids that vein white grounds with a faint mineral glint, creating surfaces that yield nearly animate currents of warmth and breath.

The paintings Martin undertook in the early 1970s, after she returned to New Mexico, are more expansive and—in relative terms—colorful: the palette remains subdued and restricted, largely due to very dilute shades of red and blue along with various whites. The slow rhythms of the mostly horizontal bands shift with the chromatic variations, now unmistakably responsive to the light and landscape of the high desert (vigorously though Martin would deny it). At the same time, she began composing paintings in seemingly infinite shades of gray, from pale washes of ink over slightly gritty white grounds to lightly smoky or fully opaque fields that seem alternately sun-warmed and deeply chilled. Bringing together a group of these gray paintings in one room, the exhibition demonstrates their range, which is emotional as well as formal; some are undeniably melancholy, others surprisingly festive.

Among the survey’s high points is the too seldom shown “The Islands” (1979), a suite of 12 horizontally striped paintings in shades of white that occasionally tip toward the palest of blues and yellows, and hint at blazing skies and cooling shadows. Martin’s single print project, 30 silkscreens made in 1973, suggests with its nearly mechanical precision a direction she chose not to pursue. On the other hand, a survey-within-a-survey of works on paper, densely installed, amply demonstrates her comfort with the drawn line. At Tate Modern, a recapitulative final room brought together motifs from early and late that Martin eschewed during the years of her most unyielding self-criticism: purples and oranges appeared; triangles and floating squares returned; asymmetry was condoned. The modest last drawing, of 2004, in which a slightly wobbly but nonetheless lyrical Ellsworth Kelly-like ink line follows the contours of a potted plant, speaks with unaccustomed poignancy of what it cost Martin to forsake description of the natural world.

The catalogue that accompanies the show has perceptive and informative essays by the curators, as well as by Jacquelynn Baas, Briony Fer, Anna Lovatt, Christina Bryan Rosenberger and others; there are also a few texts by Martin, including “Beauty is the Mystery of Life” from 1989. The authors, and in particular Tiffany Bell (who is compiling a catalogue raisonné of Martin’s work), provide valuable information about Martin’s life by way of framing formal choices, as I attempted as well in my recent biography. Martin was born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, to parents who farmed wheat on the prairie. This formative landscape can be called upon to account for the insistent flatness of her mature painting, its restricted tonal range, its luminousness and clarity. It has a marked similarity to the high desert of New Mexico where she would spend more than half her life. 

Certainly at least as significant was Martin’s time living on and near Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, in a community to which she was introduced by Betty Parsons, her first New York dealer. Among the artists there with whom she exchanged ideas and traded influence were Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and the fiber artist Lenore Tawney; other neighbors were Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jack Youngerman. These associations, along with her friendship while in New York with Ad Reinhardt, substantially shaped Martin’s work—just as her work powerfully affected theirs. Among the most senior of the artists living near the seaport, Martin was a quietly commanding presence. The interests the artists shared included Zen Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual practices (and Christian mysticism as well)—and, with these practices, a tendency toward solitude and quiet. They were also united in their deliberate social distance from the 10th Street-based Abstract Expressionist crowd. The Coenties Slip community—to the extent that it was a cohesive cohort; many of its veterans resist such classification—was, like the Taos scene, a haven for gay men and lesbians at a time of virulent homophobia. Martin’s romantic relationships were largely with women, including Tawney and Chryssa (who went by a single name, and is best known for her neon sculpture).

None of these particulars would Martin have deemed relevant. Of all the proscriptions she enforced, biography is perhaps foremost. “One’s ‘biography,’ character, abilities, knowledge all of that has nothing to do with art work,” she wrote in a letter to me in the mid-1970s. At the time, when renewed attention to her work was building, this insistence was hardly unusual. In the wake of Minimalism and Conceptualism, art was understood as addressing its own conditions—not politics, or history, or, least of all, personality. And even as narrative work by female artists gained traction with a rising women’s movement, the anathema against self-revelation was applied to women with perhaps special fervor. In her landmark feminist essay of 1971, Linda Nochlin wrote that many rising women artists shared “the naïve idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms.” But, Nochlin continued, “Art is almost never that, great art never is.” Instead, “The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form. . . . It is neither a sob-story nor a confidential whisper.” 2 No feminist herself—indeed, she abjured activism of any kind—Martin nonetheless heartily agreed.

More than 40 years later, accounts of artists’ personalities are treated with considerably more tolerance. Artists much more commonly speak for, and of, themselves. Social, cultural and individual histories are understood as essential aspects of art’s formation, and its content. As it happens, one aspect of Martin’s history that has lately come to light has more than a passing connection to personal psychology: throughout her adulthood she was treated for paranoid schizophrenia, a fact known to close friends and associates and hinted at occasionally in published accounts, but not discussed openly while she was alive. 3

Martin was hospitalized several times, and there were periods when her illness prevented her from working. What seems to have been her most dire psychic trouble occurred in the middle to late 1960s and early ’70s, a time that includes her residency in New York, her departure from the city, and her return, after roughly 18 months of wandering the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, to New Mexico. The ’60s were, it’s fair to say, a pretty nutty time all around, and it isn’t easy to see the outlines of Martin’s illness against social conditions that serve as a kind of camouflage. The anti-psychiatry movement that emerged at the time conspired with some elements of both popular and high culture—from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Susan Sontag’s apologia for Antonin Artaud—to sustain the notion that mental illness as clinically defined was an authoritarian fiction, meant to suppress individuals of unusual creativity and passion. To someone struggling with symptoms that could be miserable and sometimes incapacitating, such ideas must have themselves seemed terribly wrongheaded. Of course, being schizophrenic is no more a voluntary choice—or a consequence of bad parenting or bad influences—than is being gay or lesbian.

In any case, Martin was as loath to talk about the voices she heard—auditory hallucinations are a common symptom of schizophrenia—as she was to talk about her childhood, family or sexual orientation. Her illness as well as her work and her longevity invite comparison with Yayoi Kusama, with whom it’s conceivable Martin crossed paths in the ’60s at Bellevue Hospital’s then notorious psychiatric unit in Manhattan. Unlike Martin, Kusama has been very candid about her hallucinations, which seem to have been primarily visual and which she has said were sources for her work, the Infinity Nets in particular. The overall, regular abstract mark-making of these paintings can be related to Martin’s; in fact, a repetitive, schematic and tightly drawn mark typifies artwork produced by a number of well-known psychiatric patients whose work was supported by doctors and collectors, from Adolf  Wölfli to Martín Ramírez. 

I hasten to say that I believe it’s dead wrong to consider Martin’s work in any way a symptom of psychosis (much less a cure). No definition of outsider artist suits her (though there has recently been talk of such a link). She was a highly educated, sophisticated painter who worked in conscious relationship to the art of her era and knew its history. At the same time, the influence of Surrealism—reflected in her assemblages, biomorphic forms and connection to automatism, which I believe persists throughout in the running lines that structure her paintings—implies at least passing interest in its program of psychic exploration. Further, through her close association with Ellsworth Kelly during her New York years, she probably encountered his experiments with automatism—submissions to chance that for Kelly resulted, strikingly, in hard-edge geometric compositions rather than the cursive lines generally associated with such exercises. Insistently and repeatedly, Martin spoke of the inspirations that directed her work. She said they came to her inner eye as fully formed compositions, but small; her job was to translate them to 6-foot squares (or, later, 5-foot squares), which wasn’t always easy. This, too, can be called a kind of automatism, and a register of her distinctive psychology.

Martin’s character also suggests that we can think of her work from the early 1960s on as the continuous inscription of an inner voice. Her penciled lines constitute a kind of writerly mark, one that allowed her to regulate the bounty of the visible world, including its sometimes overwhelming splendor. In Julian Bell’s recent biography of Vincent van Gogh, the artist is quoted as saying his painting was “a lightning rod for this illness.” 4 Although I hesitate to invoke an artist so badly served by romantic notions of mad genius, it is a metaphor, of artwork solidly grounding electrifying currents of vision, that I think suits Martin’s work well.

If this line of discussion seems to offend Martin’s sensibility as much as it flouts her wishes, it is worth noting that in her many talks and published writings, she spoke with remarkable candor about depression—about the terrors of solitude, the Dragon of self-destructiveness (the capitalization was Martin’s), and the threat of disabling despondency. Admittedly, these don’t amount to a full clinical profile, but some of her published writing is frankly irrational. The evidence, on balance, is plain. But much of her prose, which has drawn almost as devoted a following as her paintings, is concerned with stern advice for students on maintaining solitary and disciplined work habits and keeping faith with one’s own inspiration; she also wrote with great lyrical strength about the natural world, and composed beguiling, cryptic parables about ambition, jealousy and love. Like everyone, but perhaps more so, she was inconsistent. In fact, few artists of any stature, it seems to me, are harder to know.   


“Agnes Martin” appeared at Tate Modern, London, June 3-Oct. 11, 2015, and travels to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Nov. 7, 2015-Mar. 6, 2016; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Apr. 24-Sept. 11, 2016; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Oct. 7, 2016-Jan. 11, 2017.