Agnes Martin: ‘A journey to the grid’

My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.

Agnes Martin, 1966

With a career spanning seven decades, Agnes Martin produced a body of work including paintings, drawings, watercolours, sculptures and films with fierce independence and shaped a singular voice that continues to resonate today. Often associated with Minimalist art by critics and curators, which she contested, Martin claimed kinship with certain Abstract Expressionists of her generation (particularly with the work of Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt) and ancient classical tradition (Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese). If indeed her visual vocabulary (and particularly the motif of the grid) can be associated with Minimal art, Martin’s attention was not put towards the construction of systems (in the manner of Sol Lewitt for instance) but rather to highlight the sensuous facture of, and the emotion contained in, her paintings.

Martin pursued beauty and perfection in the mind in line with ideals of ancient classical traditions and Zen Buddhist philosophy while seeking peace to let inspiration (as opposed to ideas or thoughts) reach her mind. Emotions and phenomenological experience were at the core of her practice as she conceived of painting as, in her own words, “meditations on innocence, beauty, happiness and love”. Characterized by their pared-down vocabulary coupled with pale and muted earth hues, Martin’s paintings are built up from barely visible overlays of brushstrokes and pencilled or painted horizontal, and sometimes vertically oriented, stripes. Their associative titles evoke the phenomenal world.

An inspiration to younger generation of artists such as Eva Hesse in the late 1960s or Ellen Gallagher in the 1990s, Martin’s work has increasing relevance for many kinds of contemporary practices across media (painting, sculpture and installation) in the present post-minimal and post-conceptual context.