Born Agnes Bernice Martin, March 22, 1912, in Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada; died of complications from pneumonia, December 16, 2004, in Taos, NM. Artist. Agnes Martin touched many people throughout her career, despite her tendency to shut herself off from the world. She was considered one of the great painters of the Abstract Expressionist period. Her paintings of barely there colors and lines also led some critics to characterize her as a Minimalist, a categorization she rejected. Martin won numerous awards including a National Medal of the Arts and a Golden Lion for her contribution to contemporary art.
Martin was born to Scottish Presbyterian pioneers in Canada. Her father died when she was two, and her mother raised her family by purchasing old properties, renovating them, and then selling them. The family moved to Vancouver, and her maternal grandfather helped in rearing her and her brother, using the Bible and John Bunyan's Pilgim's Progress to mold them. Though Martin began drawing at an early age, she decided upon a teaching career. She moved to the United States to attend Western Washington College of Education, in Bellingham, Washington from 1935 to 1938. She began teaching in high schools in various states, including Washington and Delaware. She transferred to the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. Martin earned both her bachelors and masters degrees from Teachers College. She also taught in high schools in New Mexico. During this time, Martin attended seminars taught by Krishnamurti and Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki. These teachings would profoundly affect her, both personally and professionally.
Though Martin worked as a teacher, painting was never far from her heart. She continued honing her craft, and participated in a study program at the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico. She fell in love with the area, and soon resettled there. She held her first art exhibit in Taos. Her time in the town, famous for the abundance of artists who were drawn to the town via word-of-mouth or its natural setting in the mountains, was not full of pleasant-ries. She endured hardship after hardship as her paintings sold for very little and not as often as she would hope. Her studio also doubled as her home for a time. Also during this time, she became a United States citizen.
Martin's art came to the attention of Betty Parsons of the legendary Betty Parsons Gallery. Parsons helped the talented artist sell a few of her paintings, and offered her a solo exhibition as long as Martin would agree to move back to New York. Martin agreed and, with the help of renowned artist Ellsworth Kelly, found a loft on Coentis Slip to live in. Coentis Slip was home to a number of struggling artists—such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and James Rosenquist—whose art would become commercial successes in later years. Martin's loft was in dire need of repairs and renovations; she installed her own plumbing, and also located a studio in which to paint.
In 1958 Martin held a solo exhibition at the Parsons Gallery. Influenced by Abstract Expressionist artists such Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, she began creating abstract paintings in place of landscapes and portraits, which she had previously done. Her style mimicked her contemporaries, but soon she came into her own style. According to London's Times, Martin stated she came into her artistic maturity around 1960. Her method, according to the Times, included: "a square format; canvas primed with two layers 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."
With this method Martin's art became both lucrative and critically acclaimed. She usually kept to herself and found the pressures of the New York art world overbearing. With Coentis Slip scheduled for demolition in 1967, Martin decided to leave the art world. She gave away most of her possessions, including her painting supplies, and soon embarked upon a journey across the United States and Canada. She would not paint for seven years. She resettled in New Mexico, built an adobe house by herself, and focused on writing instead.
However, Martin's work was not soon forgotten. She still held several solo exhibitions during her self-imposed exile, including a major retrospective of her work at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art in 1973. And though she felt her work was more in line with the Abstract Expressionist period, many Minimalist period artists were heavily influenced by her art and sought her out. During her "exile" she also built three more buildings on her land and kept mainly to herself, living a very simple and quiet life.
In 1974 she began painting again. She kept her home base in New Mexico, though she moved from one town to another twice. She chose to create smaller paintings versus hiring an assistant to help her move her paintings. In 1992, she moved into a retirement residence in Taos. She continued painting, but spent most of her days with friends or in quiet solitude. She had no radio or television, and she had not read a newspaper in five decades.
Martin's art reflected her quiet and simple life. According to the Chicago Tribune, she said, "I often paint tranquility. If you stop thinking and rest, then a little happiness comes into your mind. At perfect rest you are comfortable." According to Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times, "An acute attention to life's quiet rhythms characterized her work."
Martin held solo exhibitions in many countries, including England, France, and Japan. She also participated in a variety of group exhibitions. Her paintings are a part of collections in a variety of museums, including the Whitney Museum in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
In addition to her paintings, Martin also wrote several articles and books, some non-art-related. They include 1971's On A Clear Day, 1992's Writings/ Schriften, and La Perfection inherente a la vie, published in 1993. Martin received numerous awards and honors for her contributions to art. She was named one of "100 Women of Achievement" in 1967 by Harper's Bazaar and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was awarded a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Biennale. Martin died of complications from pneumonia in her home at the Plaza de Retiro, a retirement community in Taos, New Mexico, on December 16, 2004; she was 92. She is survived by a grandnephew, Derrick Martin. Sources: Chicago Tribune, December 17, 2004, sec. 3, p. 9; Contemporary Women Artists, St. James Press, 1999; Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2004, p. B12; New York Times, December 17, 2004, p. C9; Times (London), December 18, 2004, p. 67; Washington Post, December 18, 2004, p. B6.
— Ashyia N. Henderson