The Mystery of Agnes Martin in 7 Facts

Agnes Martin was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist known for her subtle and delicate canvases filled with thin grids and strict geometry.

Feb 27, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

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Unlike most of her colleagues, Agnes Martin joined the art world in her thirties and achieved initial success in her late forties. She was known as a reclusive artist who was always guarding her personal life. She built a small house for herself in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Read on to learn more about the fascinating Agnes Martin.


1. Agnes Martin Grew Up In Rural Canada

Agnes Martin painting in New Mexico, unknown photographer, c.1947. Source: Art Canada Institute, Toronto


Agnes Martin was born in 1912 in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan into a family of farmers. Her father passed away when she was just two years old. The girl had to live with her mother, whom she described as cold and hateful, using silence as her main weapon against her own child. Growing up in the countryside, Martin had a tough upbringing and was able to survive in isolated areas on her own.


She loved swimming. She even got into the Canadian Olympic team but could not afford to travel to Europe to participate in the competition. Soon after turning nineteen, Martin decided to separate from her family and move to the United States. There, she worked a wide range of odd jobs. She was a baker, a playground director, and a warden of a penal institution for boys. Always feeling an inclination towards art, she studied to become an art teacher and worked in several public schools around the country.


2. She Started as a Landscape Painter

New Mexico Mountain Landscape, Taos by Agnes Martin,1947. Source: Art Canada Institute, Toronto


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There was a change in the career of Agnes Martin after she moved to New York. After years of working as an art teacher, she was finally exposed to the city’s avant-garde art scene. So, Martin decided she could become an artist herself. At the same time, she started attending lectures on Zen Buddhism, deeply relating to its ideas of universal harmony. That spiritual component would remain in her works throughout years and genres.


She started her career as a painter of semi-abstract landscapes inspired by her native Canada and New Mexico. Gradually, her works became less and less anchored in reality. For twenty years, she worked while searching for her unique style, looking for a way toward pure abstraction that was entirely disconnected from the material world. Every time the work did not fit Martin’s expectations, she would slash it with a knife, and paint all over it until the result was right. Not many of her earlier works survived since she was ruthlessly destroying everything that did not line up with her vision.


In 1957, Martin’s work was noticed by the famed art collector and dealer Betty Parsons. Parsons was one of the most influential people in the art world at the time. She was the one who promoted the work of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others. Martin’s first exhibition happened when the artist was 46 years old.


3. She Was Part of The Abstract Expressionist Scene

Morning by Agnes Martin, 1965. Source: Tate, London


Agnes Martin was a member of the second-generation Abstract Expressionist movement. However, her works were much more subtle in color than those of her colleagues. Martin’s work had a deep connection to music. She enjoyed almost all genres and frequently made parallels with visual arts and music. Once, she complained that the public expects true and pure emotion from music but demands explanation from art. Therefore, we can try to observe her paintings as if they were musical pieces, dealing with pure emotion that could hardly be translated into words.


Some critics attributed Martin’s work to the Minimalist movement, partly because of her association with some of the artists of the circle. However, this attribution would oversimplify Agnes Martin’s work and methods. The fluidity and nuance of Martin’s paintings, their lightness and intangibility disconnect her from the rest of Minimalist artists who were focused on immovable and rigid forms.


One of the foundations of Abstract Expressionist philosophy was the fervent denial of any sort of art historical influence. An act of creation was supposed to be entirely and deeply individualistic, based on the artist’s inner turmoil and personality. For that reason, it is hard to discuss possible points of influence for Martin. However, some experts believe that seeing the works of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman in New York was crucial for her departure to complete abstraction and grid-like structures.


4. Her Technique Was More Complicated Than It Seemed 

Night Sea by Agnes Martin, 1963. Source: SFMoMA, San Francisco


Agnes Martin’s works look simple but hide complicated techniques behind seemingly flat and uniform surfaces. One of the specific features of her painting was that no reproduction or photograph could capture the subtlety and precision of the tones she used.


She worked slowly and never knew what was going to happen next. Every morning, she sat on a rocking chair in her studio and looked at the canvas in front of her, waiting for an image to appear in her mind. According to the artist, the images that appeared in her head were the size of tiny post stamps. Martin then drew them in her notebook and scaled them up to fit onto the canvas. The scaling process was complex: Martin used mathematical formulas to make sure the optical effects would translate perfectly from one size to another.


Although she started her career by making oil paintings, her abstract works were mostly made with acrylics. Gradually, she added graphite and wax pencils to line her grids. Sometimes Agnes Martin would use masking tape to achieve precise lines. On other occasions, she preferred the natural fluidity of the hand. In the 1960s, she created a series of works entirely covered with gold leaves, including Night Sea and Friendship. Until this day, art historians have no idea how she could afford such an expensive material in large quantities.


5. Agnes Martin Hated Coming Up With Titles

Happy Holiday by Agnes Martin, 1999. Source: Tate, London


Apart from painting, Martin channeled her creative energy into writing, yet the outcomes were drastically different. Martin, however, hated talking about her paintings and strongly opposed naming them. The origin of the existing titles is debatable. Experts believe that the titles weren’t even made by Martin. In the 1960s Martin had a mental breakdown caused by her schizophrenia. To fund a private psychiatrist for Martin, her friend Robert Indiana arranged several exhibitions of her works. For these occasions, he had to title the works to facilitate sales.


During the 1990s a friend of Martin’s brought her little daughter to visit the artist’s studio. The girl asked why the paintings had no names and offered her help in naming them. That alleged encounter explained the weird and childish names of some of Martin’s works from the period, including I Love The Whole World and Happy Holiday.


6. She Abandoned The Art World When She Was 55

Untitled #13 by Agnes Martin, 1975. Source: Art Canada Institute, Toronto


Agnes Martin was a late bloomer of the art world. Her first exhibition happened when she was 46. Ten years into her artistic career, in 1967, she would abruptly leave her studio, either giving away or destroying most of her work and painting supplies. To her friends, Martin said she was going camping and had plans to visit her native Canada. In reality, she settled in a house she built in New Mexico and focused on writing poetry.


Martin spent seven years on hiatus, with no TV or radio. In 1971, she received several exhibition offers and started making occasional public appearances. In 1974, she finally began painting again. Martin never truly returned to her old city life. Although she gradually did reinstall herself in the art world, her age and deteriorating mental health made it easier to remain in her safe space.


7. Agnes Martin Gave Lectures on Various Topics

Falling Blue by Agnes Martin, 1963. Source: Guggenheim Museum, New York


For decades, Agnes Martin struggled with her mental health after being diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Apart from her diagnosis, she was known to be a woman in need of her personal space. One of the reasons for this was her sexuality, which she preferred to hide from the outside world, never opening up about her lesbian relationships. Yet, the legend about Martin as an antisocial hermit painting in the middle of nowhere was hardly true. She had many friends and frequently took part in artistic gatherings in New York.


Moreover, Martin was a mentor for many young artists. She sometimes gave lectures on the importance of solitude for pure artistic expression. She also spoke about happiness and inspiration, as well as the dangers of falling prey to greed and vanity. Her lectures were mostly not practical but philosophical. They relied heavily on the idea of entering the right state of mind that would allow one to create freely. She never equated artistic practice to seclusion and isolation from reality. She once stated that it was better to go to the beach and think about painting than paint and think about going to the beach.


In her late years, Martin lived isolated, troubled by her worsening mental health. She continued to live in New Mexico in a house she built for herself, occasionally traveling around the USA to give lectures to students and exhibit her work. Martin passed away in 2004 at the age of 92. She continued painting until her very last day.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.