Agnes Martin’s 1961 show at the Betty Parsons Gallery inaugurated her early grid compositions which served as a holistic unitary system of coordinates that preserves symmetry as it hovers equidistant from the edges of square canvases, both large and small. This cool and calculated systematic organization bears a kinship to Piet Mondrian’s exclusion of curves and circles in favor of the rectilinear, yet it is belied by the hand-drawn horizontal and vertical lines which vibrate with variations of pressure and density inherent to the human touch. Martin’s palette was also muted, including various light blues, greys and browns, as well as a creamy white, which in The Beach expands before us like the sands of the shore and the waves of the ocean that dissolve into a distant horizon. Martin specifically referenced the ocean in speaking of the intent and substance of her early 1960s paintings: “When people go to the ocean they like to see it all day. They don’t expect to find that response in a painting. …Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this, …that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature, an experience of simple joy. ..My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. …You wouldn’t think about form by the ocean. …It is to accept the necessity of the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.” (the artist cited in Ann Wilson, “Linear Webs”, Art and Artists, v. 1, no. 7, October 1966, pp. 48-49)
Martin’s philosophy was centered on her spiritual readings and reflections, drawn from a myriad of sources including the Bible and the writings of Chinese sages. Yet her ideas are not to be confused with religion or confined to a proscribed ideology, any more than her art can be categorized or labeled. Martin’s art is simultaneously intuitive and intellectual, intimate and universal. She was able to see the ethereal sublime in the physical realities of life and believed art could capture that essence; as she noted, “The miracle of existence, is that we are able to recognize perfection in beauty. Beauty is unattached; when a beautiful rose dies beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), Agnes Martin, 1992, p. 93-94) Infused with this aesthetic import, Martin felt her paintings such as The Beach possessed an elemental affinity with the works of the masters of Abstract Expressionism and indeed, the chromatic and lofty paintings of Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman are called to mind. Despite living and working in New York in the early 1960s, Martin’s paintings of that period indicate that she focused on her appreciation of nature and the organic in opposition to her urban surroundings. Martin felt deeply that an artist should aspire to represent and reveal reality through their creations, not in a literal sense but in a deeper and more emotive, philosophical and profound manner. Martin’s aesthetic vocabulary of line and grid led to an early and erroneous classification with the emerging Minimalist movement which she adamantly rejected in favor of association with Abstract Expressionism. Her linear geometry existed within the quivering nature of its execution, a sign of abstraction and the human hand that entirely rejects the hard edged perfection and industrial character of the Minimalists.
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