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An ineffably glorious vision from Agnes Martin’s revered output, Untitled #12 from 1981 presents a vast canvas in which slender bands and exquisite lines of powder blue, hazy pink, and shimmering ivory alternate without articulating a determined pattern, allowing the viewer to become immersed in the variegated rhythm of Martin’s precise intervals. Within an oeuvre defined by unerring and exacting fidelity to Minimalism and abstract purity, the implication of chance in these hypnotic striations of diaphanous color renders this work truly exceptional within the artist’s later output. The present work represents the largest format in which the artist practiced; paintings of the same format from 1981 reside in some of the world’s most renowned museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. A profound realization of the sublime, Untitled #12 was notably included in the recent international exhibition Agnes Martin, which travelled to the Tate Modern in London, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Among the Steinbergs’ vast collection of Color Field, Hard Edge, and Minimalist articulations of post-war abstraction, the present work brings a moment of calm and repose, its mesmerizing grid and nuanced color inviting both inspection and introspection.
Separated into linear sections of color by Martin’s precisely outlined graphite rows, soft blue and pale pink bands span the work’s surface, presenting a hypnotic optical experience that allures and seduces the viewer. Using merely acrylic and pencil, Martin imbues color in the present work with an incandescent luminosity and creamy, supple body. It is this quality of chromatic exuberance and effulgence captured in the full-scale 72 by 72 inch format that renders this canvas an especially unique example among the set of paintings, most of which are dominated by soft murmurs of grays, whites, and black, which stemmed from the artist’s move to New Mexico in 1968. Here, in this radiant emulation of the infinite southwestern desert, suspended in an atmosphere of delicacy and restraint, the present work exudes a soporific silence and muted humility. Emphasizing Martin’s brilliant subtlety represented by the present work, Anna C. Chave notes: “Rather than 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…All of her ways are empty,” Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Agnes Martin, 1992, p. 138)
Achieving a sublime fusion of precise Minimalist form with ethereal and painterly abstraction, Untitled #12 epitomizes Martin’s peerless mastery of her refined and entirely unique aesthetic at the height of her celebrated career. A hallmark of her unique style, Martin’s horizontal graphite lines are abundantly rewarding for those who inspect them carefully, challenging the prerogative of the flawlessly straight line. Martin’s controlled pencil lines are plain, fragile, and restrained, while avoiding a type of mechanistic perfection of execution. Rather, they are characterized by barely perceptible irregularities, such as miniscule bumps across the horizontal delineations, and moments where Martin picked up her pencil, paused, and then resumed. At either edge of the canvas, the lines begin and end at different points, clearly revealing the hand-drawn nature of Martin’s composition; she had “after all, insisted on drawing her grids by hand, with only a straight edge to guide her, at a moment when Minimalist painters were using masking tape and the sculptors were having their work commercially fabricated so that there could be little question of discerning the artist’s touch.” (Ibid., p. 146) Martin brazenly embraced the exposure of the artist’s hand, convinced that such visibility helped communicate the ineffable cognitive qualities of peace and harmony. Defying the Minimalist battle hymn ‘What you see is what you see’ as coined by Frank Stella, Martin defended art as transcendental and capable of communicating the abstract glories of being: joy, innocence, and happiness. She famously wrote: “When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there is an awareness of perfection.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., Munich, Kunstraum München, Agnes Martin, 1973, p. 61)
Martin’s practice can be divided into two clear phases: first, the paintings she created up until 1967 when she left New York and embarked upon a five year hiatus from painting; and second, the work that she began to create in New Mexico until her death in Taos in 2004. The paintings of Martin’s second career phase, although rooted in her innate sensibilities, represented a series of shifts in the structure of the canvas and the use of color. Martin maintained the logic of the grid, but rather than creating infinitesimal perpendicular intersections, she now embraced purely parallel lines and prismatic nuance of color. As seen in the present work, repetitive horizontal sections signify Martin’s intent to defeat the hard-edged geometric aggression of the square, by instead activating the power of rectangular shapes to lighten the compositional aura and evince a sense of mild restfulness. As Martin was deeply influenced by Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and the airy desert environment in which she lived, her work is driven by a burning intent to cut through materiality. For its elegiac color palette and breathtaking expression of the artist’s iconic striated facture, Untitled #12 elicits an incomparable sensation of serenity, aptly summarized by the artist’s own words: “I want to draw that quality of response from people who leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature, an experience of simply joy…My paintings are about merging, about formlessness…A world without objects, without interruption.” (The artist cited in Ann Wilson, “Linear Webs: Agnes Martin,” Art and Artists, 1966, pp. 48-49)
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