Untitled #12 is a skillfully articulated execution of the artist’s signature style, in which imperceptibly thin lines of graphite demarcate six equal and minimally painted horizontal bands of incandescent powder blues and pale yellow in a consistent and repetitive pattern. From a distance, the subtly varied tones of paint only faintly assert their singularity, but as the viewer approaches the canvas, the colors separate into distinct bars of luminous pastel color humming in harmony. The visibility of the graphite overlaid on the lustrous paint structures the color into clear delineated bars, while also revealing the slight irregularities and inconsistencies of line, a calculated move on the artist’s part to evoke the human and man made quality of her paintings. Although Martin eschewed the impassioned gesticulative painting of her peers in New York City, she no more easily fit into the mold of Minimalist artists such as Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd or Dan Flavin, who sought to strip art of its human element and remove the signature of the artist’s hand. Whereas Sol Lewitt, for example, sought to erase the artist from the equation altogether, Martin retained her artistry in a graphite signature.
Martin began her artistic career as a student at Columbia University in New York City, producing the first phase of her output, which was developmental in nature. While in New York, Martin exhibited with Betty Parsons who, at the time, was also representing artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. In 1967, Martin left New York and temporarily abandoned painting until 1972, a year when she once again took up her brush and began the second phase of her career. This later body of work is non-developmental, in that Martin had settled on the motif of the grid, which she would continue to draw, paint and probe in various nuanced palettes until her death in 2004. Although Martin’s work visually aligns with an abstract sensibility in its insistence on materials and denial of representational or figurative subject matter, her works also reject the exaltation of the male gesture, a core tenet of many of the Abstract Expressionist artists with whom she is often compared. In response to their fevered action painting, Martin adopted a more meditative approach to non-representational painting, an exercise that led her to the adoption of the grid. In 1989, Martin remarked, “Well, when I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees [laughs] and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.” (Agnes Martin, interview conducted 15 May 1989 by Suzan Campbell, transcript in Archives of American Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.) Untitled #12 belongs to the latter half of Martin’s career, a pinnacle phase, in which, after decades of experimentation, she solidified her visual vernacular into the now instantly recognizable grid. As beautifully embodied in Untitled #12, Martin’s geometric logic in her best known works allowed for an infinite exploration of subtle nuances in line and color palette, as well as represented a unique collapsing of the mediums of painting and drawing.
Between 1996, when Untitled #12 was executed, and her death just eight years later, Martin received numerous awards and accolades, including the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award, the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association, the National Medal of Arts from then President Bill Clinton, among many others; her work was also exhibited by several important galleries and museums including The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Anthony d’Offay Gallery and PaceWildenstein, where Untitled #12 was purchased by Saretta Barnet. Untitled #12 is an archetypal work from this final decade of Martin’s life, when her trademark style became canonized by various art authorities and institutions worldwide. This work’s inclusion in the collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet, discerning collectors and endlessly generous philanthropists, underscores its status as a true object of beauty.
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