After her relocation from New York to New Mexico that occasioned a seven year hiatus from painting, Agnes Martin completed Untitled #0 in 1975; it is at once extraordinarily minimalist and controlled – consistent with her signature approach – and yet, in its bold venture into color, rapturous with a newly-discovered understanding and intuitive mastery of visual cadences. The New Mexico desert, a location that echoed the sparse and hazy sky-and-horizon-colored surfaces of her pictures, nourished not only a newer and subtler palette, but also the ever more profound expansiveness and tranquility on her canvases.
On her signature 72-by-72 inch canvas, precisely spaced bands and repeated alternating colors, in their graceful simplicity, recall the delicate poetry of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Martin stripped down any notion of composition and perspective to its bare bones and purged painting’s ego and materiality in order to make room for the purest form of perfection and the sublime. The appearance of Untitled #0 is reduced to the essence of objective clarity, the experience of which at once overcomes tangible passions and strives for intangible truth. Simultaneously patient and relentless, Martin’s formal reduction and repetition – in line with the Taoist philosophy that influenced much of her career – is a spiritual gesture, aiming at unearthing the transcendental and the absolute beyond that which is readily perceivable by our senses. The present work demonstrates Martin’s consummate achievement of both the ineffable and the concrete; Untitled #0 confronts the viewer with ideas that are easy to identify but impossible to define, leaving us mute in front of the painting yet quietly engaged in a dialogue with its order and serenity.
Martin thought of geometry as an appropriate vehicle for spiritual content and her manipulation of the logic of geometry served a higher pursuit of a classical perfection, which the artist considered absent from nature and only held in the mind. The painting’s orderly composition is guided by objective standards and abstract rules – mathematical to be precise. Visually, what underlies this order is the implication of infinity reinforcing the profound sense of renewal. In their repetition, the bands and graphite lines seem to recede out of focus, subtly liberating the colors to shimmer freely against one another, forming a landscape, or perhaps the specter of a landscape. In Untitled #0, the faint peachy pinks palpitate against the light blue background, coalescing into a mirage-like image shrouded by mist, simultaneously dimming and brightening, and constantly in motion. With its rigid mathematical and material basis, the painting seems always ready to leap into that indefinable absolute.
However, the leap into the absolute takes more than just the artist’s rigidity of method; it takes a temporal dimension as well. There’s a definite slowness in both the painting’s visual content and the experience of it. The faintly visible pencil marks on the gessoed surface– the obvious traces of the artist’s hand – indicate a temporal dimension in the process of creation; the surprising sense of depth constructed by the varying colors and bands requires time for the viewer to perceive, absorb and comprehend, which implies a temporal dimension in the process of reception. With ethereal radiance and lyrical beauty, Martin’s Untitled #0 exudes a kind of thoughtfulness – or thoughtlessness, borrowing from Eastern philosophy – that requires patience, a much-needed oasis in our time.
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