Who Was Agnes Martin? (Art & Biography)

Canadian-American painter Agnes Martin is remembered for her bold explorations of minimalism and abstract expressionism. Here is a window into her life in Canada, New Mexico, and New York.

Jul 23, 2022By Elizabeth Berry, BA English, Italian, & Writing Seminars
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Most of Agnes Martin’s work could be described as minimalist, but the Canadian American artist most often attributed her work to Abstract Expressionism. Founded in New York City in the 1940s through 1960s, Abstract Expressionism is an artistic movement characterized by spontaneity and the idea of the unconscious mind. Agnes Martin’s own version of abstract expressionism was created through works heavily featuring grids and abstract patterns, created through a quiet, meditative practice. While most of Martin’s works are in this style and she was a trailblazer in the movement, she also led an adventurous life which influenced changes in her art over the years. Learn more about the iconic life of Agnes Martin below!

 

Agnes Martin’s Early Life

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Agnes Martin holding a cat and posing with her siblings, 1920s, via Art Canada Institute

 

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was born on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Though she ended up spending much of her life in the United States, her childhood was spent growing up with her three siblings: Maribel, Malcolm Jr., and Ronald. Martin’s father died when she was only two and the family moved throughout Canada frequently, first from Saskatchewan to Calgary, Alberta, then eventually to Vancouver, British Columbia. While some may consider Martin to have had a picturesque childhood, she characterized her mother, Margaret Martin, as harsh and unloving when she spoke about growing up.

 

It is thought that Martin’s time in Vancouver influenced her artistically in her late childhood and teenage years, as it was a vibrant city with many cultural resources and art galleries. Martin also took up many hobbies related to the outdoors, including hiking, camping, and swimming.

 

Olympic Aspirations and Early Education

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Agnes Martin’s yearbook photo, from Washington State Normal School’s Klipsun, 1936, via Art Canada Institute

 

Agnes Martin was not just a passionate swimmer as a teenager, she was also incredibly gifted at the sport. She trained competitively and, in 1928, won the Canadian Olympic tryouts but could not afford to travel to Amsterdam to attend the games. She tried again in 1932 but missed qualifying for the Olympic team by a narrow margin. Though Martin’s dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer were dashed, she set her sights on a new goal: moving to America.

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Martin first spent time living in the United States when her sister fell ill and she had to travel to Bellingham, Washington to take care of her. “I noticed the difference in American people and the Canadian people and I decided I wanted to come to America to live, not just to go to college but actually to become an American,” Martin said. She attended Washington State Normal School and trained to become a teacher.

 

Artistic Beginnings in New Mexico

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Portrait of Daphne Vaughn by Agnes Martin, 1947

 

After teaching for a short amount of time in Washington state and struggling to find work due to the Great Depression, Martin moved to New York City to study Fine Arts at Teachers College, Columbia University for a year. In New York, accompanied by her partner at the time Mildred Kane, Martin began to work as an artist and painter. After doing odd jobs and living a chaotic life in New York City, Martin accepted an offer to attend the MFA program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

 

In New Mexico, Martin’s identity as an artist really began to flourish. This is the first time she produced surviving works, as she was a known perfectionist who would often destroy work she wasn’t happy with. One of her notable works from this period is her 1947 piece Portrait of Daphne Vaughn. This painting depicts Daphne Cowper, a woman with whom Martin had a three-year relationship.

 

Becoming an American Painter

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Untitled by Agnes Martin, 1952, via MoMA, New York

 

It was during the years spent in New Mexico that Martin began to establish herself as an American painter. She experimented with style throughout the years and even taught for one year at the University of New Mexico. During this time, she built an adobe house in Albuquerque that she lived in with Daphne Cowper. In 1950, Martin was finally granted American citizenship, which gave her the freedom to build a life and legacy in the United States. Her work from around this time includes many ink and watercolor drawings, including Untitled (1952).

 

Busy Life in New York City

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Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly on Wall Street, 1958, photographed by Hans Namuth, via Art Canada Institute

 

Though Agnes Martin lived an illustrious life in New Mexico, she remained partial to New York City and moved back to earn another master’s degree from Columbia University. She wanted to upgrade the degree she had earned from Teacher’s college all those years ago, and her inability to find a teaching job in New Mexico was a good excuse to make a move. The art world in New York City was very different from the last time she lived there, and this period proved to be very influential on Martin both personally and professionally.

 

One important aspect of this time in New York City is that it is when Martin was first introduced to Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. She listened to lectures by Jiddu Krishnamurti and Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki to learn more during this transformative time. For the rest of her life, Martin remained deeply involved in Buddhism and Taoism.

 

Introduction to Abstract Expressionism

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Friendship by Agnes Martin, 1963, via MoMA, New York

 

Another interest that developed alongside Martin’s engagement with Buddhism was Abstract Expressionism. The abstract expressionists rejected the traditional method of depicting physical objects or people, and instead expressed their inner emotions through methods like improvisation. This artistic movement was a big deal in New York City during this time and Martin was so taken with it that she destroyed many of her earlier works that she felt no longer fit her artistic philosophy. She had strict rules that would guide her thinking and refusals of thought by this point in her life, and many of these also applied to her painting methods. She became friends with other artists like Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly, who was involved in the minimalist art scene.

 

It was during this period that Agnes Martin created her signature grid style and made many of her most iconic works. These paintings were non-objective, consisting of a square canvas and horizontal and vertical composition. Works like Friendship (1963) are an example of this total non-representation at the forefront of Martin’s artistic vocabulary.

 

Agnes Martin’s Departure from New York

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Agnes Martin in Cuba, New Mexico, 1974, photographed by Gianfranco Gorgoni, via Art Canada Institute

 

Though Agnes Martin enjoyed a large amount of success in New York, living in a neighborhood with other LGBTQ+ people and putting on shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery, she finally had enough. After spending some time traveling through her native Canada, she decided to return to New Mexico. “I had a vision of an adobe brick and I thought, that means I should go to New Mexico,” she said of the decision.

 

Not long after returning to New Mexico, Martin abandoned the iconic grid style that brought her so much success and moved on to creating other work. Her paintings remained minimal and abstract but were now characterized by broad stripes rather than a grid. In the 1970s, she took a break from painting in favor of other pursuits, like filmmaking and constructing buildings on her property with traditional adobe brick.

 

Agnes Martin’s Later Years and Legacy 

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Agnes Martin in 1978, photographed by Dorothy Alexander, via Art Canada Institute

 

Agnes Martin lived primarily in New Mexico for the rest of her life. Up until her death, she was active in New Mexico’s art scene and created works in her two studios in Galisteo and Taos. Her work was receiving worldwide recognition by this point, including in her home country of Canada, and she participated in retrospective exhibitions in a variety of locations. When Martin passed away in Taos in December of 2004, the art community grieved the loss of a master artist.

 

After Martin’s death, the world learned many things about her life and legacy. Exhibitions and publications had largely been encouraged by Martin to ignore her pre-1957 work, but starting in 2012 some of these pieces were uncovered and explored in the art world. Though Martin identified herself as an Abstract Expressionist, her work was crucial in laying the groundwork for movements like Minimalism and Color-Field painting. Not only did Agnes Martin live an adventurous life filled with travel and appreciation for the natural world, but she was also a trailblazer in many different artistic communities throughout her lifetime.



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By Elizabeth BerryBA English, Italian, & Writing SeminarsElizabeth Berry is a writer from Los Angeles, California. She holds a BA in English, Italian, and Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and is working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. In her spare time, she writes articles about Italian art, culture, and literature. She loves golden retrievers, the color fuchsia, and kayaking.