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The Wintery Grids of Agnes Martin

Posted on 28 January 2016

This week I recommend taking a visual breather with the intense yet soothing paintings of Agnes Martin. Martin was an intriguing and elusive figure in midcentury American art. One of the few women recognized within the Abstract Expressionism movement, her tonal geometric work digs into elements of visual control and infinity, selflessness and love. I wish I could wallpaper my brain with her work.


Martin famously drew inspiration from Zen Buddhism and reflections on perfection. Like many of the abstract expressionists, large canvases and layering tones gave her pieces a luminescent quality difficult to appreciate in reproductions.


Unlike most AbEx painters, she was both invested in her critical recognition and also oddly disinterested by the trappings of fame, to the point where she made a point to annually gather and destroy as many of her prior works as she could.


Agnes Martin's work is marked by two distinctive periods: her New York City work, and the work from her time living in New Mexico. 


Until moving to Taos Martin's palette ranged strictly through whites, blacks and browns. After, she included warmer tones, hushed blues, and more washes. Though she claimed environment had little importance to her work, since she didn't concern herself with nature painting, the shift is remarkable.


Her use of grids and geometry as a visual meditation continues to intrigue and repel viewers today. The balance between rigidity and hand-drawn flexibility deserves up close and personal attention.

Despite reclusive tendencies she remained prolific until her 90s, working nearly until her death in 2004. Her personal and internal life appears to have been difficult, and her public life was fairly enigmatic, which lends additional interest to her acetic work and career. 


For more information on Agnes Martin's life and work, check out her ... For an approachable look at why she continues to confound critics, I recommend Sonya Chung's essay on the subject.

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