An Innocence of Mind: The Gentle, Still and Constructed Paintings of Agnes Martin

Across eleven rooms, Agnes Martin presents a series of her art pieces of varying sizes and expressions. She was an American artist (1912-2004) whose abstract pieces helped shape the way for young impressionable generations that preceded her. Much of her exhibition is new to public viewing; including her lesser known work and early paintings and spans the course of her entire creative life until her death in 2004. Her work can be characterized by large bland canvases marked by perfectly straight horizontal lines in dark greys and blues.

Martin was born in Canada and brought up on a farm before her family uprooted to Vancouver. She postponed her education to help her older, pregnant sister and then studied fine art at Columbia University. She decided to become an artist at thirty years of age and a teacher of art schools later in her life. Her work in the late 1950s is a reaction to the cubism, surrealist and abstract movements. As you walk through each room, much of work is left untitled and very similar in style. Precise geometric lines on a backdrop of pastel wash. For example her piece ‘Journey to the grid’ is a collection of shapes and marks carefully constructed on the paper. For Martin, working on paper was an important part of her practice, a way for her to feel the organic nature of creating art.

In another room a collection of her sketches are presented to us. Much smaller framed bits of paper with her scrawlings on. These are called ‘Walking’ ’The peach’ and ‘Spring Field’. As she grey older her work decreased in size as a reflection of her deteriorating age and health. Her work began being called ‘Homage to life’ and ‘Blessing’. She would paint from the top of the canvas to the bottom and rotate the piece as she went along. It is clear from this change in style that Martin became more aware of her inevitable demise. Her work is a homage to her life and a reflection of all her achievements.

In the late 1960s, her mathematically constructed shapes would be known as her trademark. To create this level of precision she would use metal rule and masking tape. For Martin her prints ‘expressed an innocence of the mind’. More and more she would exclude all curved shapes and lines from her work until finally her composition was a collection of vertical and horizontal lines.

Room four showcases her most memorable pieces, ‘The islands,’ ‘Friendships’ and ‘A grey stone’. These works comprised of lines that meet at right angles creating rectangles within the larger square. For Lucy Lippard, art critic, these are legendary examples of an unrepetitive use of a repetitive medium.’ This is a style that Martin would begin to adopt in her later works. She would mark the grid structure using graphite or coloured pencils. This was put on a painted backdrop and muddled the distinction between what was a painting and what was a drawing. Her work rarely departed from pale red, blue and white. She would apply a soft paint brush onto the surface of the print covered in acrylic gesso.

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 12.06.27

These works were a reflection of her schizophrenia. These calm painting were a cover up for the internal struggle Martin was dealing with. This reached its tipping point in 1967 where she gave up painting for five years and hitchhiked around Canada. For Martin, she felt she ‘must give independence a trial’ before returning to her creations once more.

Arne Glimcher described Martin’s last pieces of work in detail. He sat by her deathbed as she told him she had created three new pieces. One was hanging on the wall and could be viewed by the public and the other two must be destroyed. This was her last request. It is never stated what Glimcher actually ended up doing.

The Agnes Martin exhibition is a very niche one. A lot of the deeper meaning and stories of the pieces may be left unappreciated if you hadn’t been told them. To the uninformed eye you may find yourself walking from one pale blue striped room to the next, but it is through the smallest amount of research that her work can be valued. But Martin expresses it perfectly: My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything, no forms. They are light, lightness about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.’ 

Olivia Topley