“When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees, and I thought the grid represented innocence, and I still do… So I painted it, and I've been doing it for 30 years." -Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin’s paintings, abstract and distilled, with their resonant line, shape, and grid, continue to inspire such feelings. “My work is anti-nature", she once wrote in her essay Untroubled Mind, defining her works as free from suggestion of anything in the real world. Although frequently considered as a kind of bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, Martin seems to equally belong to both, as well as to a place all her own. Her creative process and contributions to the art world during her long-standing career have transcended traditional art historical definitions and left a beautiful legacy.
Martin’s initial body of work was mostly figurative, after her studies for a fine arts masters at Columbia University in the late 1940s, she absorbed principles of Taoist and Zen philosophy that later formed the notions that would lead her artistic development. As Martin was exposed to Abstract Expressionism, which was prominent in the art scene in New York at the time, she destroyed most of her early works and gravitated to abstraction. Martin’s artistic style is a fusion between profoundly beautiful, subjective, and fluctuating human touch, and universal order and symmetry. As she tried to navigate a unique path between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, her creative process was impacted by many prominent names in the art world. When she moved into the Coenties Slip studio in New York, artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, and James Rosenquist, soon become her neighbours, friends, and influences, and most importantly Ad Reinhardt became a prominent mentor.
Reinhardt specialized in Zen-like philosophies which followed the notions of “no texture, no forms, no design, no colors, no object, no matter”. Martin continued this approach in her framework by combining her fascination towards the principles of Taoism with Reinhardt’s pure “Black Paintings” into her own artistic language. Martin had an extraordinary sensitivity to the subtleties of light and touch. When she hit on the format of the grid—a motif that was tacit in modern painting after Cubism but never before stripped, and kept, so bare—she found ways to make those qualities the exclusive basis of a wholly original, full-bodied art. She insisted that the results did not exclude nature but compared it. The effect of Martin’s art is not an exercise in overarching style but a mode of moment-to-moment being.
Martin, with crucial similarities with artists like Yayoi Kusama, suffered from mental illness and utilised the role of art as a work in process to deal with her ever changing emotions and creative thoughts, which paved the way for her to come in terms with her own visual language. After her own initial vision of the innocent grid, Martin would continue painting grids, and other patterns and forms, over and over again—in fact, that she would do so for the next 30 years.