Agnes Martin was born in 1912 in Macklin, Canada, and grew up in Vancouver. She moved to the United States in 1932 and became a U.S. citizen in 1950. She received a BS and an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, in 1941 and 1952, respectively, before establishing herself as an artist. For more than forty years, Martin created serene paintings composed of grids and stripes. Her commitment to this spare style was informed by her belief in its ability to conjure profound, positive experiences in the viewer.
At the age of thirty, while pursuing her bachelor’s degree, Martin decided to become an artist. In 1947, after a few years of teaching, she settled in New Mexico and devoted herself to painting, eventually developing an abstract style informed by Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In 1957, on the advice of the New York gallerist Betty Parsons, she relocated to Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan, where her friends and neighbors included artists Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Lenore Tawney, and Jack Youngerman. By the late 1950s, Martin’s biomorphic works were supplanted by highly simplified geometric abstractions. These paintings were featured at her first show in New York, which took place at Section Eleven, an annex of the Betty Parsons Gallery, in 1958. Over the next six years Martin’s understated compositions evolved into subtle, dynamic monochromes featuring penciled grids on large, square, minimally prepared canvases. In 1966, her work was included in the exhibition Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which focused on painters working in reductive, methodical styles.
Martin abruptly stopped painting and left New York in 1967. In 1968, after traveling around the United States and Canada for a year and a half, she resettled in Cuba, New Mexico. She returned to making art in 1972. Though she continued to incorporate graphite in her paintings, utilizing the 6-foot-square canvases that had earlier become her standard, her work of the next three decades was distinguished by an emphasis on seriality and the use of stripes as a primary compositional structure. The first paintings she made following her hiatus feature pale reds and blues. However, she would soon move away from that palette, as she predominantly created gray paintings from 1977 to 1992. In the early 1990s, color reappeared in her work, and in 1993 she reduced her standard format to 5 foot square, after becoming physically unable to handle the larger canvases on her own. In 2003, Martin reintroduced bold geometric forms into her compositions. These late works recall the paintings she made in her first years on Coenties Slip in New York, while remaining distinctly informed by the intervening body of work.
Major exhibitions of Martin’s work have been organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Philadelphia (1973); Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London (1977); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1991); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1993); and Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York (2004). Agnes Martin, a comprehensive survey of the artist’s work, was presented at Tate Modern, London (2015); Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (2015–16); and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2016). The exhibition travels to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in the fall of 2016. Martin has been honored with, among other awards, the Skowhegan Medal for Painting (1987), Oskar Kokoschka Prize (1992), Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale (1997), National Medal of Arts from the Office of the President (1998), and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art (2005). Martin died in Taos, New Mexico, in 2004.