Canadian born, Martin moved to America in the 1930s with her sister and was subsequently educated at Columbia University in New York. Following a trip to New Mexico, where she would later reside, the artist returned to New York as part of Betty Parsons' stable of artists, alongside others including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Mark Rothko. After her arrival she veered between the established Abstract Expressionist and burgeoning Minimalist sets, ostensibly employing a minimalist sensibility in her refined grid works from the 1960s, but always permitting the incursion of the artist's hand in the inconsistencies of line. She became close friends with Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, and upon the latter's death, having enjoyed considerable success, Martin gave up painting, leaving New York City in 1967 for an eighteen-month trip around America. She eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico, and began to paint again in 1972. However, this five year sojourn had effected a fundamental change, as for the first time Martin began to use colour in her work. During her time in New York she worked exclusively in black, white and brown, perhaps in response to the overwhelmingly drab colours of urban life; but upon her move to New Mexico shimmering and translucent washes of pink, orange, and blue emerged, echoing the transcendent beauty of her surroundings. This use of colour, along with the ubiquitous and instantly recognisable grid structure – which itself had strong resonance for the artist, who explained that, "when I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees 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" – proved the prototype for all of Martin's mature output (Agnes Martin in conversation with Susan Campbell, May 1989, transcript in: The Archives of American Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.). Untitled #9 is one such painting. By the 1990s, following years of experimentation, Martin had reached the pinnacle of her output and had fully established her visual vernacular. At its core, this was a vernacular of beauty. As Martin put it: "When I think of art, I think of beauty… Beauty illustrates happiness: the wind in the grass, the glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds – all speak of happiness” (Agnes Martin, ‘Beauty is the Mystery of Life’ cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Agnes Martin, 1992, p. 10).
Between 1995, the execution of the present work, and Martin's death in 2004, the artist belatedly received numerous accolades and awards, such as the National Medal for Arts from Bill Clinton and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. She had her first major retrospective in 1992 at the Whitney, and was represented by Pace Wildenstein in the USA and Anthony d'Offay in Europe. As with so many female artists of her generation, only now is she enjoying the recognition that her output demands. Fundamentally associated with two of the most masculine of American movements, she ultimately chose neither, creating her own path by rejecting both the heroic and macho expressionism of Pollock and de Kooning and the mechanical precision of Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. Her oeuvre is characterised by its unassuming and subtle power. It demands attention even as it whispers. As Anna Chave reflects: "Rather than [being] 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' in: ibid., p. 138).
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