Breaking Ground

The Brilliant Subtlety of Agnes Martin

By Sotheby's
Sotheby’s May auctions of Contemporary art in New York feature two mesmerizing Minimalist works by Agnes Martin.

A n ineffably glorious vision from Agnes Martin’s revered output, Untitled #12 from 1981, offered in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction (16 May, New York), presents a vast canvas in which slender bands and exquisite lines of powder blue, hazy pink, and shimmering ivory alternate without articulating a determined pattern, allowing the viewer to become immersed in the variegated rhythm of Martin’s precise intervals. Within an œuvre defined by unerring and exacting fidelity to Minimalism and abstract purity, the implication of chance in these hypnotic striations of diaphanous color renders this work truly exceptional within the artist’s later output.

Among the Steinbergs’ vast collection of Color Field, Hard Edge, and Minimalist articulations of post-war abstraction, this work brings a moment of calm and repose, its mesmerizing grid and nuanced color inviting both inspection and introspection. 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 iconic striated facture, Untitled #12 elicits an incomparable sensation of serenity.

Using merely acrylic and pencil, Martin imbues color in this work with an incandescent luminosity and creamy, supple body. It is this quality of chromatic exuberance and effulgence captured in the full-scale 72 by 72 inch format that renders this canvas an especially unique example among the set of paintings, most of which are dominated by soft murmurs of grays, whites, and black, which stemmed from the artist’s move to New Mexico in 1968. Here, in this radiant emulation of the infinite southwestern desert, suspended in an atmosphere of delicacy and restraint, the present work exudes a soporific silence and muted humility.

Agnes Martin near her house in Cuba, New Mexico, 1974. Photograph © 2019 Gianfranco Gorgoni

The present work represents the largest format in which the artist practiced; paintings of the same format from 1981 reside in some of the world’s most renowned museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. A profound realization of the sublime, Untitled #12 was notably included in the recent international exhibition Agnes Martin, which traveled to the Tate Modern in London, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, the LACMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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 until her death in Taos in 2004. Martin’s Untitled watercolor, ink and graphite on paper, offered in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction (17 May, New York), represents an early work by the artist in which she employs the infamous structured grid that would form the foundation of her artistic legacy. A gem-like construction of subtle sky blues and pale pinks, the work was presented to Robert Elkon in 1965 and remained in the Elkon Collection ever since.

Living in New York during the late 1950s, Elkon was a burgeoning dealer with a sharp eye for emerging talent. A close friend of Elkon's — the famed dealer Leo Castelli — urged him to open his own gallery. Castelli promised to help establish Elkon's program by connecting him to his first artist: Agnes Martin. Elkon opened his eponymous gallery in 1961 and in November 1962, held the first of many solo exhibitions of Martin's work. Testament to the mutual adoration between Martin and the Elkons, Untitled also bears the distinction of having toured with Martin's three most prestigious exhibitions in the last half-century: to the Institute for Contemporary Art, Philadelphia in 1973, the three-year international traveling retrospective exhibition that originated at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992-1994 and, most recently, the four-venue retrospective assembled by the Tate Modern in London from 2015 to 2017.

“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, “Agnes Martin: Humility, The Beautiful Daughter…All of her ways are empty,” Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Agnes Martin, 1992, p. 138

A hallmark of her unique style, Martin’s horizontal graphite lines are abundantly rewarding for those who inspect them carefully, challenging the prerogative of the flawlessly straight line. Martin’s controlled pencil lines are plain, fragile and restrained, while avoiding a type of mechanistic perfection of execution. Rather, they are characterized by barely perceptible 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, clearly revealing the hand-drawn nature of Martin’s composition.

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