Though many of Agnes Martin’s artwork contains similar grid patterns and line work, the painter created a robust collection of pieces representing many different ideas and emotions over the course of her life. While she was most famous for her work within the Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist art movements, her earlier years consisted of equally captivating artistic experimentation. Here are 8 of Martin’s most famous and inspiring works from over the course of her life, showcasing both her early experimentation and the meditative line-based pieces for which she saw the most success.
1. Agnes Martin: Portrait of Daphne Vaughn, 1947
Not much of Agnes Martin’s early work remains. Though she began producing art at an early age, Martin was a known perfectionist who would routinely destroy work she wasn’t happy with. Because she found her signature styles of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism later in life, little is known about her earlier works. One of her most notable surviving early works is the 1947 painting Portrait of Daphne Vaughn, which depicts Martin’s lover of three years, Daphne Cowper.
Portrait of Daphne Vaughn is prominent not only because it was spared destruction, but also because it is a striking portrait of a young woman in an almost defiant stance. The painting provides a window into Martin’s inner life, something she was historically private and mysterious about. Though Martin’s later works are known for their overt simplicity, there is simplicity in this early portrait, too. Martin’s art style would continue to change throughout her life, but one thing that remained consistent was her ability to highlight the compelling within the mundane.
2. Untitled, 1953: A Foray into Biomorphic Style
Martin produced many untitled works throughout her artistic career, but this 1953 painting is one of the most famous. This work consists of many organic shapes over a beige-gold background, an example of the biomorphic style the painter was experimenting with during this time period. The influence of the surrealist movement on Martin is also evident here, with the abstract shapes reflected by many other prominent paintings from the time period.
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Though this piece is assumed to be more abstract than the majority of Martin’s previous work, it is still unique from her later work because the shapes are more dreamlike and less minimal. Untitled (1953) is a stunning glimpse into Martin’s fascination with biomorphism in the mid-1950s. For many, it also serves as an example of what Martin’s art might have looked like had she explored surrealism further.
3. An Early Geometric Composition: Harbor Number 1, 1957
In the later 1950s, Martin’s work took a geometric turn that would follow her for the rest of her life. Her 1957 oil painting Harbor Number 1 is an excellent example of the artist’s gravitation toward geometric shapes and muted colors. Martin painted this work right after moving to New York, where her residence in lower Manhattan was located close to the East River. Living there, Martin was quoted as saying that she “could see the expressions on the faces of the sailors.”
In many ways, Harbor Number 1 represents a midway point between Martin’s earlier biomorphic work and the signature minimal style that she was best known for. Though this work is close to her signature style, she utilized oil paint, a technique consistent with her older work. In later years, Martin tended to favor hand-drawn pencil on canvas and watercolors instead of the more traditional composition of this painting.
4. The Influence of the Coenties Slip on Agnes Martin: This Rain, 1958
The area of lower Manhattan where Martin lived was called Coenties Slip, and many believe that living in this place heavily influenced her work. She lived near many prominent young artists, like Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, and Robert Indiana. Martin spent a lot of time with these neighboring artists, many of whom were around her age and LGBTQ+ like herself. Since her new friends and acquaintances were prominent in artistic movements like Minimalism, Pop Art, and Color Field Painting, Martin was encouraged to experiment with different styles and movements as well.
One of the most prominent pieces where one can see the stylistic influence living in New York had on Martin is her 1958 painting This Rain. This painting is considered to be the most evocative of Martin’s favorite artist Mark Rothko, a Latvian Abstract Expressionist painter. This Rain is geometric, mature, and a departure from some of the more attention-grabbing paintings of her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries.
5. Friendship, 1963: A Golden Grid Masterpiece
Friendship (1963) is perhaps the most famous work Agnes Martin produced in her lifetime. The canvas is over six feet long on each side, and Martin used materials like gold leaf and gesso to emphasize the minimal grid that is the basis of this piece. The grid seen here is a hallmark of Martin’s work in the 1960s, the meticulous and uniform grid pattern adding a sense of Martin’s philosophy and worldview to her art.
Friendship is a striking reflection of Martin’s spirituality, with elements of her Eastern philosophy practices present throughout the work. Martin’s spiritual world was very personal to her and remains a bit of a mystery, but her ideas were most closely aligned with Zen Buddhism and American Transcendentalism. The gold leaf and gesso used in this piece add a sense of opulence to a work otherwise composed of simple elements.
6. A Striking Gridded Watercolor: Summer, 1965
Agnes Martin created another prominent gridded work in 1965, a watercolor piece called Summer. This artwork is quite different from 1963’s Friendship in that instead of using ornate materials like gold leaf and gesso, it consists of simple watercolor, ink, and gouache on paper. Additionally, rather than being painted on a large 6 x 6 canvas like many of her previous grids, Summer was created on a small paper of only 22 cm on each side. In doing this, Martin showed that the meticulous beauty of her gridded drawings was not just reserved for the large scale.
Martin’s method for creating iconic gridded works like Summer was meticulous and, perhaps surprisingly, mathematical. Her creation process first involved working out complicated mathematical equations on paper for each part of the grid, working out exactly where she would draw her lines when she began working on the larger canvas. Only after everything was planned out fully did Martin begin the final artwork.
7. A Stunning Example of Simplicity: Untitled, 1978
Though she became notable for her gridded artworks, Martin continued to experiment after the end of the 1960s. Before creating her 1978 Untitled painting, she took a notable break from making art to pursue a period of solitude in New Mexico. She was quoted as saying, “I don’t understand anything about this whole business of painting and exhibiting. I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed anything else but there was also a ‘trying to do the right thing’—a kind of ‘duty’ about it.”
When Martin returned to art following this period of solitude, she created works like Untitled consisting of colorful vertical and horizontal lines instead of a grid. This simple 1978 work was created from watercolor and ink on transparent paper. It encapsulates Martin’s dedication to this line-based method of expression. Untitled is a stunning example of the simplicity in both Martin’s art and life philosophy at this point in time.
8. With My Back to the World, 1997: Agnes Martin’s Philosophy
Agnes Martin’s most famous work from her later years is almost certainly her 1997 painting With My Back to the World. This piece is a part of a series of six paintings with the same name and was created with synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Though her large canvas works typically had dimensions of 6 x 6 ft, she decreased the size of the canvases for With My Back to the World to 5 x 5 ft due to her old age. When she created this work, Martin was in her 80s and lived in an assisted care facility, though her mind remained sharp as evidenced by this meticulous artwork.
With My Back to the World was one of the last prominent solo exhibitions of Martin’s lifetime, and it reflected her quiet methodical philosophy that only became stronger in her final years. The lines in this piece are simple yet striking, and to this day paintings like this one are the reason Agnes Martin remains one of the most influential figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement.