A gem-like vision of shimmering lines and saturated azure depth, Untitled is among a limited grouping of small-scale works from 1960 that arguably constitute Agnes Martin’s first true series of grids; similar paintings from this pivotal year reside in esteemed museum collections, including Dia Art Foundation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as distinguished private collections worldwide. Intimate in scale, the present work exemplifies Martin’s astounding and unparalleled ability to impart profound poignancy within the simplest and sparest of artistic vernaculars. Unlike Martin's more reductive works from later years, Untitled features a richly painted surface that is built up, brushstroke upon brushstroke, to an almost sculptural degree, imbuing the present work with an objecthood rare among her works. Rendered with exacting precision, Martin’s delicate network of silver thread-like marks atop the cobalt paint articulate the specificity of her artistic ability with captivating intimacy. Held in the same prestigious private collection since being acquired in 2001, the present work ranks among the finest and earliest examples of her now signature grid.
Suspended in an atmosphere of rippling blue, the intricately delineated columns, adorned with infinitesimal whisked and feathered strokes, announce the thrilling arrival of Martin’s mature artistic mode with the quieted humility and soft-spoken subtlety for which the artist has become best known. While the first phase of her career was characterized by frequent moves and breaks in production, it was in the early 1960s that Martin’s pioneering painterly explorations would, with unwavering purpose, begin to coalesce into the gridded masterpieces for which she is best known. The grid in its non-hierarchical structure, articulation of the flat surface, and immunity to representational imagery, was already a symbol of modernist abstract painting, exemplified in the work of the legendary Piet Mondrian, and further extrapolated in the oeuvres of such artists as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt (both close friends of Martin).
More significant to the present work than either Newman or Reinhardt, however, was Martin’s sometime girlfriend Chryssa Varde-Mavromichali, a sculptor who also employed a geometric vocabulary and modest means within her artistic practice. Chryssa’s early forays into relief sculptures with metal plates, nails, and tacks would inspire the intellectual and formal investigations that distinguish the present work and its sister paintings. Frances Morris writes: “Close in size and intention to Martin’s drawings was the series of small oil paintings that she made from 1960, which appear to address fundamental questions about geometric abstract painting, specifically (so it seems) the relationship of the grid to the surface and edge of the canvas, formal questions which affect the appearance, or illusion, of depth and movement in painting. In most of these canvases the grids function as containers for marks – dots or dashes and ticks often likened to stitches – and borders separate the grid from the edge of the canvas.” (Frances Morris, “Agnes Martin: Innocence and Experience,” Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Agnes Martin, 2015, p. 61) Looking to Chryssa’s reliefs, Martin noted the shadows cast from nails and pins affixed perpendicularly to the support; she then flattened the three-dimensional space of Chryssa’s sculpture, translating it into the tiny diagonal hatches that abut each vertical line in a ladder-like march up and down the canvas. These nearly obsessively-etched lines and incisions into the blue paint produce a textural, relief-like effect, immediately transforming this flattened object into something soft, velvety, and seductive. Martin also sought inspiration from the artist Lenore Tawney, a member of the Coenties Slip group now best known for her innovative weaving. Like Chryssa, Tawney provided a critical point of reference for Martin, who, although working with oil on canvas, evokes in her work something of the three-dimensional and tactile. The large woven ‘sculptures’ Tawney created hung from the ceiling such that light filtered through the weave and illuminated the impressive loom work; similarly, the negative space wrought by Martin’s deft hand mirror that effect – almost as if incandescent light spilled through the very fibers of Martin’s canvas.
The rich blue square that anchors Untitled presents a dense weave of thin lines that make up a regulated grid of columns and interstices. Martin incised these delicate marks onto the wet paint, revealing small nuances and irregularities in her execution, the blue paint bleeding slightly into the scratched negative space, and creating a dizzying weave of line and color. The exquisite beauty of Untitled lies, not in the symmetrical regularity of Martin’s grid, but in the singular sophistication with which she manipulates mark, material, and method to create works of rare sensitivity. Far from impersonal, the miniscule slips, and gaps and differing marks reveal the variations of pressure and density inherent to the human touch.
The tightly interwoven network of blue paint and etched lines nestle snugly within a gray border inside the painting’s frame. This pictorial device was of great interest to artists in the 1960s, at a moment when the concern with figure/ground relationship defined abstract painting. Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd described Martin’s framing devices as having the effect of “creating a distinct rectangle rather than an implied continuum.” (Donald Judd, “New York Exhibitions: In the Galleries – Agnes Martin (Elkon)," Arts Magazine 37, January 1964, p. 53) Martin would later eliminate these borders from her paintings, instead extending her grids to the edges of her canvases, but it is these initial explorations into this figure/ground relationship that tie her early 1960s works to Abstract Expressionism as much as her later works position her within Minimalism.
An exquisite embodiment of Martin’s signature strategies, Untitled eloquently captures not only the extraordinary sensitivity that defines her decades-long career, but also reveals a sublime expressiveness and delicacy within the intimacy of its composition.
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