PRINT April 1973

Early Work

AGNES MARTIN'S LATE WORK, distilling painting to an ultimate system of information, has been seminal to a generation of Minimal artists who have also rejected arbitrary elements in order to define the operations of painting and sculpture. Yet the elimination of chance and contingencies from her work has never been the outcome of programmatic decision; it was the result of a slow and often painful struggle to find those processes essential to painting which would be in accord with her philosophy of the “awareness of perfection” as expressed in art. Martin had to experience all elements subjectively, through long periods of trial and error in which she tested small variations in scale as well as more generic subjects, themes, and forms. She had to undergo these permutations visually and not purely conceptually in order to see whether they satisfied the desire, at first noetic and then conscious, for the holistic image—the impersonal, self-contained, and classical.

Martin was born in 1912 in Saskatchewan, Canada, on a homestead where her father was a wheat farmer. He died when she was very young and she and her mother, sister, and two brothers moved to Vancouver, where her mother worked renovating and reselling old houses. The family was never financially secure, and Martin worked at a variety of nonart jobs before and during college. She received her American citizenship in 1940 and attended universities in Oregon, California, and New Mexico. The most significant decision in respect to her career in painting was to attend Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Although she first enrolled in the general education program, majoring in the teaching of history and social studies, she switched the following year to fine arts and fine arts administration. Martin earned both her B.S. and M.A. from Columbia, attending the school irregularly from 1941–54. During this period of time in New York, she decided to become a painter, and remembers being very impressed by the Abstract Expressionists showing primarily at the Betty Parsons Gallery. However, she did not have enough money to remain in New York after she graduated, and returned to the West, first to Albuquerque, where she taught at the University of New Mexico, and then to Taos in 1956.

At the turn of the century, Taos had begun to attract artists from the east, notably members of the New York School, such as George Luks, who visited for the subject matter—Taos was a small, primitive town, not yet discovered by tourists. From that point on, the art of New York was reflected, first in American Scene painting, confirmed by the W.P.A. involvement, and later modified from the West Coast, particularly by the work of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. In the late ’40s, Taos was affected by the growing influence of the Abstract Expressionists, primarily through Clyfford Still at the California Institute of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Rothko also taught there during the summers of 1949 and 1950. Many students of Still moved to Albuquerque and Taos when he left San Francisco to live in the Eastern United States.

A small group of artists, several originally from New York, formed the Ruins Gallery a few miles south of Taos, which Martin joined when she moved there in 1956. This group included, among others, Louis Riback and Bea Mandelman, who had worked with the W.P.A. in New York, Clay Spohn, Judson Crews, the editor of The Deer and the Dachshund poetry magazine, and Lady Dorothy Brett, the friend and biographer of D.H. Lawrence. Since these artists and writers previously had contact with ideas current in New York, the purpose of the group was to keep at bay the provincial scene, as exhibited in the local galleries. At that point, most of their work reflected the late Surrealist influence of Miró, Matta, Ernst, and Arp on American art.

At this time, Martin’s work employed a biomorphic abstraction developed from her somewhat conventional still lifes and portraits of the late ’40s. A painting from around 1951, Father and Son, won first prize in the Taos art fair. Martin has indicated that the subject of the painting is a father worrying that his son is not masculine enough, forgetting that sons are not born manly. Such narrative elements are abandoned in the more abstract Personnages of 1952 and 1953, which, while recognizable as human forms, are not literary in signification. In these paintings and in drawings of the same time, line becomes more fluid and expressive, closer to automatic handwriting severed from its object, often floating in an unattached space, giving a weightlessness to the picture. While Martin’s earlier works had been rather heavy-handed in execution, with thick black lines as contour, the paintings from 1952 use line as translated from pencil—either actual pencil lines or tensile painted lines. This is particularly apparent in the paintings of 1954–55, when Martin gave up the human figure for landscapes of subjective abstract imagery. Untitled (a), 1954, shows a relationship to the iconography of early Gottlieb and Baziotes. The hieroglyphlike forms are equally dispersed across the surface. The petal shape near the bottom, the brushed “star” near the top, and the three-armed figure at the upper left—show the influence of Picasso and the organic Surrealism of Miró and Arp. However, these heavily emphasized shapes seem to operate at cross purposes with other elements in the painting, indicating the direction in which she was moving, though unknowingly at the time. The floating egg shapes, the delicate drawing in the upper right corner, and the pearly color reveal a desire to free the work from both specifically biological reference and abstracted narrative. The placement of the forms across the surface creates an unaccentuated, overall plane, disturbed only by the weight of the darker elements. Several other paintings of this time also reveal a dichotomy in intention, as if Martin felt compelled to use darker shapes because she was at first unable to accept the absence of tonal contrast.

The paintings of 1955, while still reminiscent of landscape, are more delicate, the line functioning independently of contour. In Untitled (b), the nervous, brittle, and somewhat elegant draftsmanship, seemingly a metaphor for psychological states, similar to that in Gorky’s paintings such as The Pirate I, 1942, and II, 1943. He retains a horizon line, objects referring to celestial bodies, and vertical marks signifying organisms, but the degree of abstraction indicates a desire to reach more universal forms beneath the specificity of external shape. Martin’s work is also similar to Gorky’s in defining a predominantly frontal space without deep vanishing points, the calligraphic markings crossing rather than penetrating the surface. But while Gorky’s color is often intense, contraposing light, sweet colors with harsher ones, Martin’s colors have always been pale and washlike, carrying the translucency of watercolor into oil paint. Martin’s space, while associated with landscape, avoids Gorky’s complex linear convergence. Her shapes aspire toward the edges, as if freeing themselves from the attraction of other internal elements.

Within the years 1954–55, the work began to free itself of ideographic symbols in favor of more diffuse washes of color and abstract forms. The objects become more geometric and are separated from one another. This abstraction and simplicity can be seen in Untitled (c), where differences of shape are subdued by an expansive, light-filled space. The increased luminosity of the work is similar to the early paintings of Mark Rothko, whose approach to oil painting was also rooted in watercolor and gouache, particularly in work of the ’40s.

In Martin’s painting, the ground is thinly applied in pale, translucent colors, augmenting the feeling of light and atmosphere. This quality is tied less and less frequently to illusion—the flatness and frontality of the picture surface begin to dominate, losing all reference to landscape. The elements in the painting are more closely identified with the field. There seems to be a move toward more impersonal handling, toward more objective work whose image is not impeded by the means of execution.

Martin seems to have identified the expression of universal forms with the elimination of identifiable organic shapes, but she was as yet unable to transcend a semi-illusionistic space in her paintings. The minimal illusion of a space not convergent with the surface plane itself was a limitation because it implied a contingent aspect of reality.

I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought my mountains looked like ant hills. I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought that the plain had it, just the plane. . . . Anything can be painted without representation.1

Martin’s desire to attain essential form and process is paralleled by the practice and philosophical position of the Abstract Expressionists. One example of this mode is the use of the term “Intrasubjective” in an exhibition of 1949 at the Samuel Kootz Gallery. The catalogue included the statement of Ortega Y Gasset from whom the term was taken:

The guiding law of the great variations in painting is one of disturbing simplicity. First things are painted; then sensations; finally ideas. This means that in the beginning the artist’s attention was fixed on external reality; then on the subjective; finally on the intrasubjective. These three stages are three points on a straight line . . . After Cézanne, Painting only paints ideas—which, certainly, are also objects but ideal objects, immanent to the subject or intrasubjective.2

In the mid-’50s, Martin’s work began to probe the idea rather than the representation of the object. She became increasingly interested in perceptual orders and systems, ordered at another level than the unpredictable and unequal consequences of contesting parts in nature. Her developing detachment from the object is predicated on different philosophical grounds from the rather metaphysical evolution of the Abstract Expressionists’ notion of sensation to idea. For example, while Pollock’s drip paintings incorporated chance into controllable pattern, he was always involved with paint and texture. Rothko’s simplified frontal image, though emphasizing the objectness of the painting, led to a single emotional effect and a romantic feeling for the monumental. Martin’s lack of conviction in her paintings of the time seems to indicate her uneasiness with the involvement of body gesture in execution and with the sensuous use of paint.

It was significant that fortuitous circumstance allowed Martin to return to New York at this point. In the summers of 1956 and 1957, Betty Parsons and Kenzo Okada were staying with a friend of Parsons at Tesuque, close to Santa Fe. They visited Taos frequently, and Parsons, who had seen Martin’s work before she left New York in 1954, was encouraged by Okada to handle Martin’s work. At that time, Martin’s painting bore some resemblance to Okada’s work, as in Untitled (d), though Okada, who has priority, regards the similarity as a coincidence. Parsons’ support made it possible for Martin to move to New York in 1957 to Coenties Slip, at the tip of Manhattan, where Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, Ann Wilson, Lenore Tawney, James Rosenquist, and Charles Hinman lived.

During her first months in New York, Martin’s paintings did not differ radically from her earlier work. Drift of Summer, for example, contains a cubelike shape in shades of white, yellow, and gray, delicately atmospheric and set in from the edges in a manner similar to Rothko’s rectangles. While the painting contains four almost symmetrical circles, it evades frontality with a diagonal twist that gives the work an illusion of space. The circles and the absence of value contrast show Martin’s move toward greater literalness. The precision of placement and the scale of parts—where the cube sits, the size of the circles, the slight diagonals between them—characterize her best paintings, including the later grids.

Although it is misleading to speak of direct influences between the artists on Coenties Slip, Martin was encouraged in her movement toward impersonal and nonallusive painting by the attitude current among many artists in New York, including those who had worked in Paris after the war. Martin’s contact was mostly with Kelly, Youngerman, and Indiana. By the time Kelly returned to New York, he had been painting on panels for several years. His reliefs in Paris had led him toward the development of pure color juxtapositions, and by 1952 he had chosen the basic vocabulary of primary colors and black and white. The identification of color and plane in his work eliminated pictorialism through an ascetic system of operations which eventually created a purely “geometrical space, entirely conceived by the mind, and the uniqueness of the space can only be perceived when the painting is perceived as a whole.”3 In 1954, Kelly’s single-image works were shown at the Parsons Gallery, and by 1958 he was making paintings with basic geometric shapes in primary colors. In 1958 Youngerman was painting organic forms in thick paint related to the work of Clyfford Still, but somewhat simplified in image and execution. Indiana was making constructions and reliefs with painted plywood, although he had not yet started using lettering or signs.

Martin’s work from 1958 reflects her identification with this sensibility. An early construction of doorknobs on wood, Garden, 1958, seminal to her rectangle and circle paintings, can be regarded as a manifestation of contemporary concerns—comparable to Kelly’s early panels and to Indiana’s constructions. Indiana’s reliefs Sixth Sense, 1959, and Marine Works, 1960,4 share Martin’s attitude toward materials and the literalness of the work. Martin’s progression toward the holistic image from this point, however, was discontinuous. At first, she experimented with variants of the rectangle within the square, predicated upon her awareness that symmetry and frontality augment the sense of the impersonal and self-contained. Several paintings from late 1957 include a square divided into two triangles within a square canvas, a rectangular painting with a row of four vertical rectangles, a work called Window with two rows of two rectangles within a square canvas, and Wheat, a square indented slightly from the edges of a square canvas and divided into six parts, all painted in pale colors. It was in these paintings that Martin realized the aspect of painting that was to be her primary concern: “People think that painting is about color/It’s mostly composition/ . . . Maintenance of an atmosphere of information.”

In 1958, with a series of paintings of paired symmetrically placed rectangles, Martin achieved absolute frontality. Unlike the earlier variants of rectangles, the 1958 rectangles are legible as holistic, hieratic images. A comparison with Rothko’s floating rectangles demonstrates the vast difference between his romantic sensibility and Martin’s detached, impersonal format which suggests stasis and tranquility while it seems to result from precise measurement. Martin’s rectangles are also distant from Josef Albers’ Variants of 1959, to which they are superficially similar. Albers’ works, while frontal and symmetrical, create perceptual ambiguities through overlapping and transparent planes, which alternate in spatial reading. Albers’ interest in the phenomenology of vision is even more apparent in his later Homage to the Square series, where the square is a neutral form used to investigate color-light relationships. The weighted squares in these works telescope backward and forward, creating dynamic perceptual events in opposition to Martin’s stable compositions.

In the rectangles of 1958, Martin visually realized some of the qualities she felt to be necessary to the operation of painting—the frontality, formality, and balance. The classicism of these works is similar both formally and philosophically to Ad Reinhardt’s painting. Although he had not yet started his black paintings (Reinhardt’s monochrome squares, which usually retain their initial date, even after darkening repainting by the artist, began in 1954) his program for painting already guided his thinking, and he also progressively renounced elements contingent to his work. As early as 1947, for example, he wrote of his desire for “pure painting in which there is no degree of illustration, distortion, illusion, allusion, or delusion.”5 Martin’s rejection of relational forms, intense value contrast, and apparent subjectivity, may be compared with Reinhardt’s description of his black paintings in 1961:

neutral, shapeless, not large, not small, sizeless, no composition, formless, no top, no bottom, directionless, lightless, colorless, glossless, textureless, nonlinear, no hard edge, no soft edge—a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self-conscious (no unconscious) idea, transcendent, aware of no thing but Art (absolutely no anti-art.)6

Reinhardt’s programmatic eliminations freed his work from the randomness of nature, from space and from time, while his conviction in the purified essentials allowed a sensuous involvement in the craftsmanship of the work.

While Reinhardt was able to dispense with certain forms a priori because of his programmatic approach, Martin came to her convictions inductively. She had to test each form through visual response rather than by logic. However, in both Reinhardt and Martin, the approach to holistic imagery suggests the desire of the mystic for totality or oneness transcending relationships between parts. Even before 1960, both painters were moving toward paintings which would demand a higher degree of consciousness as the response of the viewer to almost invisible events. The verbal statements of Reinhardt and Martin are similar in nature to the self-contradictory phrases of mystics which couple unity and multiplicity, overcoming the barriers between the individual and the absolute. This reconciliation of opposites is apparent in Reinhardt’s statement quoted above, and in some of Martin’s recorded comments: “There is only the all of the all/everything is that,” and “Blake’s right about there’s no difference between the whole thing and one thing.” While Reinhardt formalized this philosophy in his work, Martin seems to have had a closer relationship to it. Her talk of “awareness of perfection” and of inspiration is intuitive rather than intellectual.

Martin did not pursue the grid consistently, but experimented with symmetrical and concentric compositions as other possible ways of eliminating relationships between parts. Martin destroyed almost all of a series of dark paintings with rows of circles done in 1959, such as Lamp. Though this work uses the grid in placing the uniformly repeated elements, the circles appear to be objects against a field, in front of rather than congruent with the ground. Journey I, grows out of the format of two rectangles but increases the number of elements. This painting seems metaphorically associative, suggesting a moon and its reflection, the dividing line automatically functioning as horizon. But even were this reading overlooked, unlike the almost invisible composition of the double rectangles, the painting is self-conscious in design. Martin’s use of the center most resembles that of Stella’s black stripe paintings of 1959, where it serves as a self-defining composition rather than as a structure for coloristic or rhetorical purposes. Contemplation, however, fails to hold a neutral frontal position—the inside circle is so different in value that it leaps forward, creating a dynamic spatial reading.

Martin’s work of late 1960 and 1961 returned to the investigation of the grid. One series of paintings, with horizontal lines and diagonal rather than vertical cross lines, have almost all been destroyed by the artist. Other paintings include several with hieroglyphlike elements in a grid, but clustered in configurations toward the center of the canvas. Singing, 1960, for example, seems to involve a language of cuneiform triangles. The diagonal slant at the corners of the configuration, however, shapes the grid into a designed object against a field. In this and in several paintings where Martin uses symbols against a ground or has scratched lines into the surface, the iconography is reminiscent of Paul Klee. The visual metaphor in some of Martin’s work is also similar to Klee—the drawing Mountain, 1960, uses shape as an associational device, although the title as usual is selected afterward by the look of the image.

Dark River, 1961, one of the first mature works, is not experienced as figure against ground because the delicate tracery of horizontal lines permits line as light and space to become synonymous with the surface. In Dark River and in the following grid paintings, Martin isolated those elements that satisfied her desire for the holistic and self-contained. She eliminated circles, diagonals, and internal forms, ultimately reducing the possible operations to the horizontal-vertical grid and to purely horizontal lines. In these works, the images have been distilled from a complex convergence of elements; there is a wide range from success to failure depending on slight variations in scale and touch. At this point, Martin’s use of the grid is still not programmatic. She has made many attempts to subvert the grid, recently destroying almost a year’s work before completing a series of 9“ x 9” paintings of grids and of horizontal lines, in gray silkscreen ink and in pencil, to be printed and published by Parasol Press in 1974. Martin’s reason for using the printing process is to make the works more detached and impersonal, to erase all traces of the hand. In this respect, she renews the grid as a necessary element of pure painting as it accords with her view of the world: "The whole wave/ It applies to life the wave/ As it was in the beginning, to where there was no division/ and no separation/ don’t look at the stars. Then your mind goes freely—way, way beyond/ look between the rain/ the drops are insular.

––Lizzie Borden



1. This and all other quotes of Agnes Martin are taken from the text “The Untroubled Mind,” transcribed by Ann Wilson, and in the catalogue of the exhibition.

2. The Intrasubjectives, Samuel Kootz Gallery, 1949. This was a show of house artists (Baziotes, Gottlieb, Hofmann, and Motherwell) backed up by other artists from Parsons (Pollock, Reinhardt, Rothko, Tomlin) and elsewhere (de Kooning, Gorky, Graves,. Tobey). Harold Rosenberg used “intrasubjective” in the catalogue text as a unifying formula for new tendencies in American art but the term was not picked up.

3. John Coplans, “The Early Work Of Ellsworth Kelly,” Artforum, summer, 1969.

4. Reproduced in Robert Indiana, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1968, p. 11. Another early Martin object, Kali, c. 1959, a block of wood supporting neat rows of massive rusty screws, was included in the “Coenties Slip Exhibition,” Buecker and Harpsichords, February, 1973.

5. Ad Reinhardt, exhibition catalogue, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1947.

6. Ad Reinhardt, exhibition catalogue, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1961.