Home Magazine Agnes Martin: how to make the invisible in art, visible!

Agnes Martin's paintings are often read in a formalist and intellectual key, connected with the artistic experience of great masters such as Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers and Ellsworth Kelly. What is lost in this partial comprehension of her path, is the strong interest in the culture of the subjective and nature.

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Agnese Martin is recognized as one of the most important exponents of the New York School, considered as a temple for abstract expressionism's genre, but also this information it's partly incorrect. Born in Canada in 1912, the artist moved to the United States in 1931 where she studied at Columbia University and officially obtained citizenship in 1950. Her connection with the Abstract Expressionist poetics has led her to valorized the implication of the human gaze on the artworks, but in her training, very important artistic references were artists like Paul Klee or manufacture from Indio-American's cultures. In this regard, a fundamental experience was certainly the degree taken at the University of New Mexico, a state in which the presence of ethnic groups such as the Navajo, Pueblo, and Apache is still very strong.


Agnes Martin, The Islands, 1961.


Entering on the specifics of her pictorial production, the paintings belonging to the period between 1955 -1959, bring an exaltation of the unconscious, the personal and the subjective. These paintings reject rigid and closed forms, to adopt softer shades that intertwine with each other and create a highly evocative effect. Even the artworks' titles are chosen by the artist at the end, after a long observation of the finished canvas. Since 1957 artworks acquired a more symmetrical order, starting to include geometrical elements such as circles, triangles, horizontal and vertical lines, and preferring monochrome. The first grids, which appeared between 1959 - 1061, are often flanked by paintings where the lines and points are alternate and varying from picture to picture. Often this series of works presents motifs that have analogies with objects and landscapes, indeed titles are commonly Leaf, Stone, Hill, Desert, Mountain, etc.  In this case, another important aspect to consider is that to the artist behind the apparent rigidity alway remains fundamental to the error,  also if it's minimized by the artist's hand, and also document the aspiration of the painting in valorized authenticity, and the association between artefact and artificial.


Agnes Martin, Untitled #5, 1998.


Agnes Martin, Flower in the Wind, 1963.


Martin's painting respects the technical data and the different nature of the materials: oil, graphite, canvas. The love for primitive cultures linked to the Navajo tribes or to the ideography of Tunisian rugs, lead the artist also to pay close attention to the sign. In fact, Martin's art, it is not aimed by an aesthetic satisfaction but by the will of making visible the invisible. So, in her works, the lines are not limits or delimiting structures but "visions". This instinct of freedom expressed in all the works brings artists far from all the modern painting traditions: from Cézanne to Stella. If traditionally the lines worked as a reading method (cubism), and as a measurement or proportion to insert information (Mondrian); with Martin lines become a sensitive dialogue between color and surface. For Martin painting seems to be an unwritten doctrine always handed down for centuries and yet to be discovered. Painting as the creation of nothingness but that tends to a supreme beauty.

Cover image: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Agnes Martin, 1993, Hiram Butler Gallery.

Written by Elisabetta Rastelli

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