This exhaustive survey of painter Agnes Martin’s career shows how she spent decades modulating the basic form of a gridded or banded square to achieve a vast range of aesthetic and emotional effects, from severe to sensual. Martin saw this style of clean abstraction as a route to profound emotional and spiritual truths, a way of “reaching zero,” she said. The exhibition presents her choice of artistic expression as an analog to her schizophrenia, which was only publicly revealed after her death.
Born in rural Saskatchewan in 1912, Martin made her way to New York in the 1940s. Early paintings such as Mid-Winter (circa 1954), with its subdued interplay of brown and white, point to her interest in nature and landscape as well as to her debt to early modernist artists like Arthur Dove. Martin settled on the format of the grid in the early 1960s. While works like The Tree (1964) initially appear austere, the imperfect, hand-drawn graphite lines dividing the canvases—a consistent feature of Martin’s work from then on—give them an abiding humanity.
After a breakdown in 1968, Martin left New York and settled in New Mexico, where she lived until her death, in 2004. The concentrated power of the art she made there is epitomized by The Islands (1979), a group of 12 all-white grid paintings that, assembled in one room, hit the viewer like a snowstorm. With their haze and luminosity, they have the visual and psychic effect of Rothko’s color fields. Indeed, although Martin’s work was often classified as Minimalist, she considered herself an Abstract Expressionist.
Two final rooms showed Martin tinkering late in life with her well-established visual language. A fascinating set of sketches revealed how she applied the grid to ovals and triangles. Her very last work appears too, an odd drawing of a houseplant from 2004. And among the late paintings included in the show was Homage to Life (2003), a floating black trapezoid that yawns like an abyss, perhaps how this iconoclastic artist imagined her own death.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 110.