An ineffably glorious vision from Agnes Martin’s seminal period of production, Untitled #13 belongs to a rare and incomparable suite of 72-inch paintings that the artist executed in 1980. Of the paintings in this group, nearly half belong to prestigious museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Stanford University Museum; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, among others. The present work is further distinguished by an extensive and storied international exhibition history that includes Martin’s celebrated 1991-1992 retrospective, which commenced at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and triumphantly concluded at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. A mesmerizing mirage of chromatic complexity, Untitled #13 is among Martin’s most profound realizations of the sublime.
Separated into triune sections of color by Martin’s precisely outlined graphite rows, soft hues of hazy powder blue, icy yellows, and pale pink bands trace horizontally across the work’s surface, presenting a hypnotic optical experience that allures and seduces the eye. Using chalky-white gesso to tint her primary acrylic pigments, Martin imbues color in Untitled #13 with an incandescent luminosity and creamy, supple body. It is this quality of chromatic exuberance and lavish paint application captured in the full scale 72-by-72 inch format that renders the present work an especially unique example among the set of paintings, most of which are populated by greys, whites and black, that emanated from Martin’s move to New Mexico in 1968. Here, in this radiant emulation of the infinite New Mexican desert, suspended in an atmosphere of delicacy and restraint, the present work exudes a soporific silence and muted humility. The sound of Untitled #13 is heard through a faint, barely perceptible murmur—a rhythm of nuance that emerges through transitions in color as demarcated by Martin’s hairline graphite contours. Emphasizing Martin’s brilliant subtlety represented in the present work, Anna C. Chave wrote, “Rather than overlooked by critics, Martin’s quiet technique caused them to look all the more thoroughly, just as we may be impelled to lean forward and concentrate more intensely when a speaker’s voice is exceptionally soft.” (Anna C. Chave in “Agnes Martin: Humility, The Beautiful Daughter…All of her ways are empty” in Exh. Cat., Whitney Museum, Agnes Martin, 1992, p. 138)
Sweeping horizontal expanses of color in the present work are each subdivided into three ribbons with a central, thick band flanked by two thin bands of faded hues. Calibrating on a threshold of diffusion, the three bands inside each section of color appear to dematerialize and melt into one another, becoming less differentiated as time passes. As the viewer steps farther away, the thick bands of color gain compelling prominence, radiating off the surface as saturated landmarks of the striated composition. Neutralized and weakened relative to these pronounced stripes, the interspersed thin bands masquerade as ostensibly negative space. Similar to the oscillating patterns of color and saturation, Martin’s horizontal pencil lines are abundantly rewarding for those who inspect them carefully, acknowledge their blemishes and their inconsistencies, and thus challenge the prerogative of the flawlessly straight line. Martin’s controlled pencil lines—“paradoxically, a signature without an ego,” as Douglas Crimp described them—are plain, fragile, and restrained while avoiding a type of mechanistic perfection of execution. Rather, they are characterized by slightly discernible irregularities, such as miniscule bumps across the horizontal delineations, and moments where Martin picked up her pencil, paused, and then resumed. At either edge of the canvas, the lines begin and end at different points of latitude, clearly revealing the hand-drawn nature of Martin’s composition. Martin had “after all, insisted on drawing her grids by hand, with only a straight edge to guide her, at a moment when the Minimalist painters were using masking tape and the sculptors were having their work commercially fabricated so that there could be little question of discerning the artist’s touch.” (Anna C. Chave in “Agnes Martin: Humility, The Beautiful Daughter…All of her ways are empty” in Exh. Cat., Whitney Museum, Agnes Martin, 1992, p. 146) Martin brazenly embraced the exposure of the artist’s hand, convinced that such visibility helped communicate the ineffable cognitive qualities of peace and harmony. Defying the lionist Minimalist battle hymn “what you see is what you see,” as coined by Frank Stella, Martin defended art as a transcendental capable of communicating the abstract glories of being: joy, innocence, and happiness. She famously wrote: “When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there is an awareness of perfection.” (the artist, "Notes," in Exh. Cat., Munich, Kunstraum München, Agnes Martin, 1973, p. 61)
Martin’s practice can be divided into two clear 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 began to create in New Mexico from 1972 until her death in Taos in 2004. 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. Martin maintained the logic of the grid, but rather than creating infinitesimal perpendicular intersections, she now embraced purely parallel lines of color and focused on the prismatic nuance of a more painterly approach. As seen in the present work, repetitive horizontal sections signify Martin’s intent to defeat the hard-edged geometric aggression of the square, by instead activating the power of rectangular shapes to lighten the compositional aura and evince a sense of mild restfulness. As Martin was deeply influenced by Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and the airy desert environment in which she lived, her work is driven by a burning intent to cut through materiality. For its elegiac color palette and breathtaking expression of the artist’s iconically striated facture, Untitled #13 elicits an incomparable sensation of serenity, aptly summarized by Martin’s own words, as expressed in an interview with fellow artist Ann Wilson: “I want to draw that quality of response from people who leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature, an experience of simply joy... My paintings are about merging, about formlessness...A world without objects, without interruption." (the artist in Ann Wilson, "Linear Webs: Agnes Martin," Art and Artists I, no. 7, 1966, pp. 48-49)
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