Agnes Martin (b. 1912)
“I once taught art to adults in a night course. I had a woman who painted her back yard, and she said it was the first time she had ever really looked at it. I think everyone sees beauty. Art is a way to respond ” 
About the artist
Agnes Martin was born in 1912 in Saskatchewan, Canada, and grew up in British Columbia. She came to the United States in 1932 and received her B.S. and M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. During the 1930s and the ’40s, she taught at public schools and colleges, but would later comment that teaching "is the worst thing you can do if you’re an artist. It takes all the emotional energy."
In 1957, she settled in lower Manhattan and the following year had her first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery. By the late 1950s, she was developing the highly simplified abstractions for which she would become best known. Her paintings consist of a simple system of interlocking horizontal and vertical lines in an almost exclusively six-foot-square format. Because of her geometric style, critics frequently associated Martin with Minimalist artists. But Martin’s goals were different: her fragile lines that cross expanses of lightly applied, atmospheric color reveal a spiritual quest. Her arrangements shift in scale and rhythm from work to work. The grid in White Flower—composed of intersecting white lines that form rectangles punctuated by symmetrical white dashes—resembles woven fabric.
The titles of her paintings—Mountains, Dark River, Starlight, Leaf in the Wind, Spring, White Flower—attest to Martin’s persistent engagement with themes of the natural world, albeit in an abstract manner. She expressed her own emotional response to nature through the most extreme economy of formal means. “Anything,” Martin claimed in 1972, “can be painted without representation.”
–Adapted from an essay by Nancy Spector, Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2001.
1. All quotes from Holland Cotter, “Profiles: Agnes Martin. (abstract painter),” Art Journal (fall 1998).
View + Discuss
1. What words would you use to describe the look and feeling of this painting? Why?
2. The titles of Martin’s paintings frequently reference natural forms. The title of this work is White Flower. Are there ways in which you can link elements of this work with qualities you associate with a white flower? Are there ways that this painting seems to defy a connection with its title? If you were to choose a new title for this work, what would it be? If you were to create an abstract painting titled White Flower, what would it look like?
3. Since the 1960s Martin has consistently organized her paintings by utilizing a grid. She has said that she did not choose the grid as a format, that it chose her. To her, the grid represents innocence, wholeness, boundlessness, quiet, and absence of ego—an expression without words. What do you think she meant by this? Describe your associations with the grid as a format. Are they similar to or different from Martin’s association?
4. Martin has stated, “Anything can be painted without representation.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain your response.
5. When asked about how to look at her work, Martin recommends doing the same as when we look at the ocean: “You just go there and sit and look.”  How does this recommendation influence your appreciation of her work?
Agnes Martin has written about life and art in a book called Writings, that includes her poetry and thoughts. One poem from 1973 is as follows
I can see humility
Delicate and white
It is satisfying
Just by itself
a precious gift
I would rather think of humility than
Humility, the beautiful daughter
She cannot do either right or wrong
She does not do anything
All of her ways are empty
Infinitely light and delicate
She treads an even path
Sweet, smiling, uninterrupted, free
Can you sense a relationship between Martin’s painting and this poem? Are there any qualities or values embedded in this poem that seem to manifest in Martin’s painting? Martin has chosen to praise the quality of humility in this poem. Choose another human characteristic and write a poem that expresses the qualities you associate with that trait.
Martin has lived in New Mexico for more than 30 years. To her, the straight horizontal line relates to the vast plains of New Mexico. Her paintings are heavily influenced by the elusive desert light.
Think about a landscape that you have experienced. Envision that place and recall how the air smelled. What were the weather conditions? What time of day was it? What season of the year? Create an abstract painting that through color and line expresses the essence of that place and your experience of it.
Martin has studied Asian philosophies—especially Taoism, a Chinese religion and philosophy advocating simplicity and selflessness. Taoism is interested in intuitive wisdom, rather than in rational knowledge, and concentrates on observation in order to discern the nature of the universe. Research the basic teachings of Taoism. Can you find instances where this philosophy seems to relate to Martin’s work? Describe the parallels you discover.
Agnes Martin (exh. cat.). Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1973. Texts by Lawrence Alloway, Agnes Martin, and Ann Wilson.
Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings, 1957–1975 (exh. cat.). London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1977. Texts by Dore Ashton and Agnes Martin.
Agnes Martin: Writings–Schriften. ed. Dieter Schwarz. Winterthur: Kunstmuseum Winterthur, in association with Edition Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1991.
Agnes Martin: Paintings and Writings. New York: PaceWildenstein, 2000. Texts by Arne Glimcher and Agnes Martin.
Rifkin, Ned, and Edward Hirsch, Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond (exh. cat.). Houston: The Menil Collection, in association with Hatje Cantz, 2002.
Mitchell, Charles Dee. “A Metaphysics Of Simplicity. Agnes Martin And Richard Tuttle, Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas,” Art in America (November 1998). Reprinted at http://www.findarticles.com.
Cotter, Holland. "Profiles: Agnes Martin. (abstract painter)", Art Journal (fall 1998), Reprinted at http://www.findarticles.com
Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, produced and directed by Mary Lance. Documentary: 57 minutes, VHS, 2002.