Agnes Martin: Five Decades will present ten paintings by Agnes Martin dating from 1958 to 1999. The work assembled here, created over five decades, will trace Martin’s formal development from the early "figurative" works of the late 50s and early 60s, through the grid format of the 60s and 70s, to the expansive bands of color emerging in the 1990s. This group of paintings will illuminate the evolution of her line and palette, as well as shed light on the central theme and preoccupation of her work over 50 years, namely the pursuit of perfection, happiness and beauty.
Throughout the 1950s, Martin struggled with the task of making a painting that was able to speak the language of the inner mind, a metaphysical place where she felt the beauty and perfection of the external world resided as absolute ideas. Stemming from concepts found in Taoism and Zen Buddhism that gained popularity in the United States in the 1950s, Martin set out to find a visual form for the immaterial world of the mind, a space where the fleeting presence of perfection and beauty of the natural world was eternal. For Martin, beauty and perfection transcend the natural world, and, therefore, the painting acted as a vehicle to recapture the experience of the sublime.
The painting Untitled, circa 1959, consists of a circle painted in white and black on a gray neutral background. Although the line wavers in areas, it depicts a perfect circle, which, along with the straight line and the dot, Martin noted did not exist in nature. Shapes, however, still implied things and in the early 1960s Martin continued to experiment with formal ideas that would bring her closer to the ultimate goal of finding an abstract format that allowed the mind to empty itself of the ego and other distractions. It would be through pure abstraction, that Martin felt would allow the viewer to experience the sublime. In Untitled, 1962, a small canvas painted gray blue is filled with a dash and dot pattern. The result is a meditative composition without a central focus, depicting nothing related to the natural world.
In the work This Rain, circa 1960, Martin floats two perfect rectangles of pale blue and yellow on a white background. Indicating the influence of the transcendental ideologies promulgated by the Abstract Expressionists, and in particular Rothko and Newman, Martin uses the rectangle as a tool for spiritual contemplation and meditation. The single rectangle would then evolve into an overall grid of rectangles as seen in the painting Trumpet from 1967. Trumpet is made up of a horizontal grid of rectangles drawn in pencil over uneven washes of gray translucent paint. This is arguably Martin’s last painting before she abandoned painting and left New York in 1967.
The grid served as a perfect geometric solution for an all-over pattern that would lead the mind away from the material world towards a purer experience of the sublime. The decentralized composition reflects the infinite space of the mind. For Martin, it was through uniform spacing and compositional equilibrium that transcendental reality could be attained.
In the 1980s, the stark palette and the rigid grid would give away to looser pastel washes filling hand-drawn pencil lines. In Untitled #14, three-quarter inch bands are filled with uneven washes of pale blues, pinks and oranges. In the 1990s, symmetry would often give way to varying widths of horizontal bands. In Untitled #17, 1997, the palest blue is washed over the white surface in three bands with almost imperceptible demarcating pencil lines.
The later paintings have lost much of the severity of the earlier paintings, seeking to underline a more optimistic outlook on the world. This later work, for Martin is filled with contentment, peace and serenity. Despite her affiliation with the Minimal movement and artists such as Judd and Andre, Martin differed greatly in her goals as an artist. Martin aligned herself more actively with the ideologies of the Abstract Expressionists whose work was steeped in mysticism and spiritual content. The Minimalists believed in an empirical reality as evidenced by their objects. Martin, however, has sought to transcend this material reality, making the attainment of the sublime her central theme.