Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Mind of Agnes Martin: Abstract Expressionist

Agnes Martin

By Dana Gee McClellan

At first, the decision to write about Agnes Martin came out of a desire to show respect for an old female artist who seemed to be in absolute agony. You see, after the first night of watching her on video in our Art Appreciation class, with all of her grunting, lip-smacking and issues of old age, I doubted that anyone else would choose her for their final paper. This isn’t meant to be a put down to her; it’s just that Martin was SO real in her interviews and so unconcerned with self and the outer shell, my first impression was that she was a man. Agnes Martin is a woman whose beauty comes from the inside, but once her beauty has been experienced, it’s hard to turn away. It’s not just the beauty of her art, but also of her wisdom. It is this essence of her that I will attempt to capture in this paper.

A Snapshot of Her Background

Agnes Martin was born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1912. She moved to the United States in 1931, and began her college education at the Western Washington College of Education, Bellingham, Washington. She attended three other colleges while teaching art and eventually earning her B.S. in 1942. She became an American citizen in 1950 and received her M. A. in 1952. Both of her degrees are from the Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. In 1954 she moved to Taos, New Mexico and lived there for three years while teaching art and developing her painting skills. Very little art was sold back in those days, but in 1957 Betty Parsons of the well-known Betty Parsons Gallery took notice of her. After helping Martin to sell a few of her paintings, Parsons offered her a solo exhibition, conditional upon a move back to New York. Martin agreed, and was soon living in the Coentis Slip, which was a community of struggling artists—many of whom would later go on to become commercial successes.

Inspired by abstract expressionism, Martin moved away from painting the usual landscapes and portraits, to an abstract style. It wasn’t long before she came into her own, and according to London’s Times (quoted from, it was about 1960 when she reached her artistic maturity. The Times described her work as “a square format; canvas primed with two layer of gesso; hand-drawn pencil lines; thin layers of paint, first in oils, then in acrylic which she preferred because it was much quicker to dry.” It was this work that distinguished her and her style from the other artists in her genre, giving her the ability to command a pretty penny for her works.

Martin grew weary of the attention of the art world and longed for a much more secluded lifestyle. Eventually, in 1967 she made her way back to Taos, New Mexico and put her paint brush down for awhile. The Gale Encyclopedia of Biography (quoted from states that, “Her refusal to paint for seven years at the height of her professional success added to her enigma, as though she were choosing spirit over matter.” It was during this time she began to write; giving the world access to her thought process and helping us to better grasp her work. After reading some of her writings, her paintings made much more sense.

Studying an artist a little bit before viewing their work is a good idea if time allows, because art can be hard to understand. An example of this would be one of Martin’s paintings, The Desert (which was expected to bring in somewhere between $4,000,000 and $6,000,000 at Sothesby’s).


The Desert
Completion Date: 1965
Style: Minimalism
Genre: abstract expressionism

I tried REALLY, REALLY hard to see what the art critics were talking about with this piece, but I just didn’t “get it.” It could’ve been the fact that the computer screen was not picking it up the detail in the way that it should be viewed, but I couldn’t see where that would’ve made that much of a difference—not for 4 to 6 mil. What I could see was the color. It was, in fact, very representative of the luminescent coloring of a desert sunset. I can appreciate that very much. Martin had the luxury of being able to sit and soak up her environment, which included all those beautiful pastels and sandy colors we see on desert evening. Not only that, but it’s easy to imagine the feeling that goes along with it; peaceful, contemplative, and Zen-like. This is what she captured in this work.

What is hard to understand is the valuation of the piece. It seems obvious to me there is much more involved here than the artist’s talent. It’s seems more of an attempt to jack up the price of a work so that others can get rich on the backs of the artists, ultimately having the power to taint our perspective. We, the audience, need to appreciate a piece of work not for the amount of money it may command, but rather, for the value of our individual perception. Some of us may need a little help from the artist in order to understand the work, but once we do, it makes the art much more enjoyable.

Philosophy of Her Work

“All artwork is about beauty; all positive work represents it and celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives. When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind. It is a mental and emotional response that we make” (Agnes Martin). It became clear to me after further research, that Martin had a way of stripping the illusion away from reality as she spoke in plain terms and revealed to us a much more profound way of thinking. In fact, I feel stupid for having been so superficial in the beginning. This beautiful soul didn’t need anyone’s approval; not mine and not the rest of humanity’s. She had evolved far beyond that. It was her mind, as much as her art, which attracted the appreciation of her followers. While Martin’s uncluttered perspective of life may seem out of the ordinary to the average person, to an artist, it’s about as close as one could get to Nirvana.

While watching her in the video Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, we witnessed her as she painted and talked about her work. She described a horizontal line in the painting she was working on at that moment, a line we don’t want to go below because going below that line would take us into the negative. We need to stay above the line in “positive thoughts.” While she was discussing this, I became emotional for some reason. I’m not quite sure what it was that did it. Perhaps it was because I was so into what she was teaching and so aware of the negative thoughts that I have been carrying around with me, that it struck a chord. I must have been thinking, ‘you mean that’s all I have to do is stay above that line?’ Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Strike a chord with us to the very depths of our souls? Even if only for a moment? She made me want to meditate on her work, in hopes it would help me to rise above the meaningless crap. This woman has a way of mirroring the core of our being and making us aware of what’s possible.

Her artwork reflects a type of repetition and what appears to be a kind of “classicism.” It is in this repetition we can see a form of meditation. It is predictable and therefore soothing and easy to take in. When practicing Zen meditation, one must focus upon something that is infinite or unsolvable. It is in this visualization of one thing only which helps to free the mind of clutter and better enable us to receive inspiration. Not only was Martin helping us to experience the infinite from our own perspective, with the possibility of receiving inspiration of our own; she was also expressing her own internal philosophy. She was a teaching artist, and she wanted to give us all the gift of peace.

Considered a minimalist by some, she referred to herself as an abstract expressionist and rejected the minimalist tag. While it’s not hard to see where someone might perceive minimalism in Martin’s work, our interpretation doesn’t necessarily describe her style. Who are we to tell her what her style is? Maybe it’s the audience who hasn’t taken the time to get to know her that labels her a minimalist. They are not seeing her art the way she is expressing it, they are only judging the work from their own perspective. The audience that has taken the time to understand her and may have more of a feeling towards art, will appreciate the abstract expression.

Work depicting the horizontal line, representative of positive thoughts above the line, and negative thoughts below. Martin. Untitled #9. No date. Image Source:

Then again, couldn’t it be both? It could be the minimalism in her mind (the emptying) that allows her to receive and then express her inspiration. She has so mastered the un-cluttering of her mind, that in her later years she said she didn’t even have to meditate or put effort into it anymore. Martin stated, “I used to meditate until I learned to stop thinking.” All she had to do was determine it, and her mind would remain “empty” and ready for inspiration. She started with minimalism by reducing her thoughts to nothing—a blank slate, which gave her the ability to receive inspiration and would manifest itself as abstract expression.

I’m going to take it even further. This was a cycle she was creating and I can see it now. After it left her and became art, the general public received it as minimalism. Then what? Once we got to know her we were able to move on to the clearing of our own minds by meditating on her work and giving us the gift of inspiration. It would be up to us to decide where to take it from there. This is a social construct.

Strong Ties to Modern Art

As we are able to see in her earlier works, Martin leaned heavily towards abstract expression. The Harwood Museum of Art states in an article entitled Agnes Martin: Before the Grid, “The biomorphic piece—involving abstract shapes that evoke living forms—was a serious effort to find a new language and visual vocabulary.” What is biomorphic? According to, it is a “term applied to forms in abstract art that derive from or suggest organic (rather than geometric) shapes.” It is representative of surrealism, and a good example of this style can be seen in the works of Jean Arp, an associate of Kandinsky and exhibitor with the “Blue Rider” group. His painting Configuration would be a great example of this. As Martin began to move away from the biomorphic shapes she began to focus more on linear and grid-like designs in grey tones and other washed-out subtle colors. She eventually got to a point where she couldn’t stand her earlier work and even went as far as to destroy much of it.

Above, an example of Martin’s Biomorphic work. Untitled. 1953. 

With her strong ties to the Modern Art genre, she has definitely made her way into the world of Contemporary Art. It is her ability to transcend her audience into a deeper realm of thought. She moves us from the canvas and into the mind with both her philosophy and her paintings.

A Peak into the Mind of Martin

For the sake of representing Martin more accurately, I’ve gathered together some of her own words and will use this section to convey as much of her essence as is relevant to this paper. This came from an in­ter­view done with her at her stu­dio in Taos, NM in 1997 by Chuck Smith & Sono Kuwaya­ma.
She believes (paraphrased):
· Once she gets an inspiration she makes up her mind not to interfere.
· The artists of today have the inspiration, but before they can get it on canvas, they have about fifty ideas, and that is when the inspiration disappears.
· Ideas are separate from inspiration; i.e. inspiration comes from the universe and ideas come from us.
· The best art is music; that it is the highest form of art because of the emotion it invokes.
· Artists don’t deserve the credit for their work because the inspiration comes to them and tells them exactly what to do. Even when they’re painting it tells them exactly which strokes to make. She says they have to take the blame if they get shaken between the inspiration and the finished product.
· Competition clouds inspiration.
· The worst thing you can do when creating art is to think about one’s self.
· The happiest moment for her with her art is when they go out into the world.
· The pursuit of knowledge is futile and is not conducive to inspiration.

Summary: My Opinion

I’m going to be honest here and tell you that I haven’t quite grasped all of her work and maybe that is simply because I’m not in a position at this point in time to be able to really sit and meditate on it. I will say however, I understand her and her philosophy. I admire her for forcing me to think about what’s real. Life shouldn't be about all of the “stuff” we tend to get so entangled with. We need to take time out and go deep.

I believe her work is classical in its striving for mathematical perfection. It allows us to focus on what needs not be thought about too much, clearing the way for inspiration. After meditating on her gridlines we are overcome with a feeling of infinity, which is an integral part of Zen meditation. This helps me to understand that she is ultimately striving for truth in herself and what she presents to the world. I feel safe with her because of that.

Having grown up with a mind full of self my entire life, I feel almost ashamed at some of the stuff I continue to think about—over and over again; constantly allowing the negativity of this world to enter into my mind. I have lived a life “below the line” and she makes me more aware of it. I see her as a kind of guru, one that I want to study more.

Agnes Martin is the Nirvana of the art world.

A Gridline Piece

Figure 2. Agnes Martin, Wood I, 1963
Watercolor and graphite on paper, 15 x 15 1/2 inches (38.1 x 39.4 cm)
Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Image Source:

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