Dating from a seminal period of Agnes Martin’s prodigious artistic production, Untitled #5 is a painting of unparalleled sophistication and painterly finesse. Subtly lining the canvas in slender bands, exquisite lines of powder blue, hazy pink, and shimmering ivory alternate without articulating a determined pattern, allowing the viewer to immerse him or herself in the variegated rhythm of Martin’s precise lines. Within an oeuvre defined by precise and exacting fidelity to Minimalism and abstract purity, the implication of chance in these hypnotic striations of diaphanous color renders Untitled #5 truly exceptional in the artist’s later practice. Held in the same private collection since 1989, Untitled #5 eloquently encapsulates the sublime expressiveness within minimal means that is not only the hallmark of Martin’s celebrated corpus, but which stands as her seminal and enduring contribution to the discourse and development of contemporary painting in the Twentieth Century.
Achieving a sublime fusion of precise Minimalist form with ethereal and painterly abstraction, Untitled #5 epitomizes Martin’s peerless mastery of her refined and entirely unique aesthetic at the dazzling pinnacle of her celebrated career. Although differentiated by an infinite number of nuanced subtleties in line, palette, and composition, the artist’s output can be divided into two principal phases: first, the paintings she created up until 1967 when she left New York and embarked upon a five year hiatus from painting; and second, the work that she created after 1972, following her move to Taos, New Mexico in 1968. In her early paintings of the 1960s, Martin established her signature and unique aesthetic of focused linear form, producing a series of striking paintings rooted in a grid of tightly interwoven vertical and horizontal graphite lines laid over muted monochromatic grounds. The paintings of Martin’s second career phase, although rooted in her innate sensibilities, represented a series of shifts in the structure of the canvas and the use of color. While maintaining the logic of the grid, she now embraced purely parallel lines of color, privileging the prismatic nuance of a more painterly approach. In the luminous canvas of the present work, Martin’s intensive and packed pencil markings of the 1960s yield to precisely delineated bands of lightly tinted color, delicately striating the canvas in a manner reminiscent of the limitless vistas of both sky and sand that surrounded her in New Mexico. Profoundly inspired by the natural world, Martin felt deeply that artists should aspire to represent and reveal reality through their creations, not in a literal sense but in a deeper more emotive, philosophical, and profound manner. As she wrote: "We are in the midst of reality responding with joy. It is an absolutely satisfying experience but extremely elusive…The artist tries to live in a way that will make greater awareness of the sublimity of reality possible.’’ (Dieter Schwarz, ed., Agnes Martin: Writings, Ostfildern, 1992, p. 93) In Untitled #5, the thin bands of subtly alternating hues, constrained within their pencil demarcations, appear to visually vibrate from the painting surface, as though the composition were emitting actual rays of light into the space it inhabits.
Canvases such as Untitled #5 emphatically assert their place within the canon of Western art history, negotiating a sensitive equilibrium between the subtle poetry of delicate mark-making and the muscular prose of the modernist grid. This work presents itself as a portal into Martin’s unique spiritual sensibility, born of a tightly regulated system: emotional verve impeccably and intriguingly obfuscated by an exquisitely structured façade. The artist’s gentle manipulation of the logic of geometry and classical perfection contrasts with the solidity of her pictorial structure. Minimalist abstraction is thus employed not as a clinical device, but rather as a means of revelation, the perfection of the surface engendering beauty, calm, and self-reflection in the viewer. As David Ross wrote in 1993 for the artist’s show at the Whitney Museum of American Art: “A quintessential twentieth-century ascetic, Martin has successfully pared down both her art making and her life and in so doing has found the kind of focused tranquility that informs her abstract painting.’’ (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Agnes Martin, 1993, p. 6) Transcending specificities of line and color to achieve an exquisite sublimity of pure abstraction Untitled #5 is the consummate culmination of Martin’s prodigious output: a brilliantly balanced symphony composed of the essential leitmotifs that comprise her inimitable technique.
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