Agnes Martin – Reduced Abstraction And Contemplative Minimalism

Agnes Martin (1912 – 2004) was one of the most influential abstract painters of the 20th century. Her works are characterized by a contemplative minimalism that is both powerful and calming. She herself, however, classified her work more as Abstract Expressionism.

Martin was born in 1912 in Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada. She moved to the United States in 1932. There she held various teaching positions for the next several years and later moved to New York City. During her time in New York, she came into contact with many visual artists and developed a keen interest in art. The desire to pursue a career as an artist herself became increasingly strong in her. She eventually studied art at the Art Students League of New York and the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.

During these studies, she was not only introduced to Naturalism and Surrealism but also discovered the teachings of Buddhism and Zen philosophy, which she incorporated into her artistic work. Soon she developed a special appreciation for Abstract Expressionism, which essentially constituted her artistic identity. With some interruptions, she kept returning to New York and had her first exhibitions. But it wasn’t until her 40s that she started making creations she could be proud of. Her earlier efforts were met with such dissatisfaction that she had no choice but to take drastic measures – destroying her art or attempting to do so.1

© Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use
© Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use

In the 1960s Agnes Martin finally developed her iconic style of muted, square, and rectangular color stripes. In addition to her own artistic pursuits, Martin had the opportunity to work closely with her friend Ad Reinhardt, a fellow artist whose shared interests in Eastern philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and art made the partnership particularly enriching.2

After the death of Reinhardt in 1967, however, Martin dropped everything and left the city for good. She sold almost all of her belongings and left everything behind. In the vast expanse of New Mexico, she found a home. But she did not paint during this time. It was not until 1974 that she began to paint again, deeply inspired by the simple beauty of her surroundings and the teachings of Buddhism.

With her latter years spent in preferred solitude, Agnes Martin was never short of visitors, ranging from old friends to curious scholars or critics who wanted to learn more about the artist and her life. Her dedication and passion for her art was well-known, having achieved critical and commercial success, as well as her place in art history. In 2004 she died at the age of 92. 

Agnes Martin created powerful works of art. They explore the relationship between line, space, and harmony, using muted colors and soft texture to create a sense of calm and balance. Martin herself often referred to her works as expressions of “universal beauty,” bridging the gap between the viewer and the infinite.

Her legacy will continue to inspire generations of artists in the future. Her works are a powerful testament to the power of simplicity.

Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings. 

Agnes Martin
Minimalist Art by minimalist Artist Agnes Martin
©Untitled, 1959. Dia Art Foundation; Gift of Milly and Arne Glimcher. © Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York under Fair Use
© Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use
Agnes Martin, The Islands, 1961, oil and graphite on canvas, 72" x 72" (182.9 cm x 182.9 cm) © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Agnes Martin, The Islands, 1961, oil and graphite on canvas, 72″ x 72″ (182.9 cm x 182.9 cm) © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Further Reading / Resources

1 https://www.culturedmag.com/article/2016/07/04/agnes-martin-lacma
2 https://www.artstor.org/2015/08/12/the-zen-of-agnes-martin/

https://www.moma.org/artists/3787
http://www.artnet.com/

Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances. London: Phaidon Press, 2012 by Glimcher, Arne

Agnes Martin by Frances Morris, Tiffany Bell, Marion Ackermann, Rachel Barker, Jacquelynn Baas, D A P & TATE, 2015

Aesence is an independent art and design publication dedicated to minimalist aesthetics. Founded out of a deep appreciation and fascination, Aesence aims to promote awareness and appreciation of minimalism in art and design.