the art of Agnes Martin 1912 – 2004

Agnes Martin is one of my favourite artists.  Her work is simple, beautiful, sometimes soft of palette, sometimes vibrant sea-blue, and at other times stark and black.  Always spare, the majority of her work is based on straight lines, either in the form of grids or stripes.  But Martin’s life didn’t follow such a straight path. Suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, she was influenced as much by Taoism and Buddhism as her friends and fellow artists – Mark Rothko, Donald Judd and Barnett Newman.

om pom agnes martin untitled 1994 ink and wash on paper

Above: UNTITLED ink and wash on paper 1994


She once said of her work, “When people go to the ocean, they like to see it all day… I want to draw a certain response like this… when people leave themselves behind [and] experience simple joy.”


om pom agnes martin 12 om pom agnes martin 25

om pom agnes martin 24  om pom agnes martin 13

om pom agnes martin 9  om pom agnes martin brown composition 1962


Born in 1912 in Canada, Agnes Bernice Martin moved to America aged twenty and spent the rest of her life either there or in New Mexico.

Initially she took a science degree, graduating in 1942, but in New York in ’41 she was drawn to the art she saw there and, after teaching in New Mexico and Washington, decided to do a masters in fine arts in Columbia in 1952. To support herself during this time she took various jobs and said, “Whenever I was really starving, I washed dishes. That way you were closer to the food.” 


Below: UNTITLED one of Agnes’ earliest works painted 1952

om pom agnes martin 1952


Below: UNTITLED 1953

om pom agnes martin untitled 1953


In 1957, aged 45, Agnes moved to New York from Taos, New Mexico where she soon made friends with Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Barnett Newman.

Here she is with Ellsworth Kelly in his New York studio in 1957…


om pom agnes martin Ellsworth kellys studio nyc 1957


In 1958 one of the best art dealers in New York, Betty Parsons, became a huge supporter of Agnes and set up a show at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Barnett Newman helped Agnes to hang her work there, Martin saying, “He was much better at it than I was.”

This is some of her work over the next 3 years…


om pom agnes martin Window oil on canvas 1957
om pom Agnes-Martin-the Wedding-1958








BONES #2 1959
om pom agnes martin reflection 1959








om pom agnes martin untitled 1959
om pom agnes martin untitled 1958







om pom agnes martin happy holiday 1959
om pom agnes martin cow 1960
COW 1960
om pom agnes martin untitled 1960







om pom agnes martin untitled 1960 $457,000
om pom agnes martin the rain 1960









om pom agnes martin working in her studio 1960

Above: Agnes painting in her studio in 1960

Like many artists, Agnes’ initial paintings were landscapes, portraits and still lifes… “I’d done every kind of picture ‑portraits, landscapes, still lifes‑ but I didn’t want to show them. It wasn’t till I found the grid, in New York in 1960, that I felt satisfied with what I was doing. When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees, and I thought the grid represented innocence, and I still do. So I painted it, and I’ve been doing it for thirty years.”


om pom agnes martin 16


om pom agnes martin 20


om pom agnes martin friendship 1963


om pom agnes martin 3


om pom agnes martin night sea 1963

om pom agnes martin on a clear day 1973


om pom agnes martin starlight 1963


om pom agnes martin the city 1966 ink and graphite on paper


om pom agnes martin untitled 1960 $457,000


om pom agnes martin untitled 1962


om pom agnes martin wood #1 1963


om pom agnes martin white flower 1962


om pom agnes-martins-9


Agnes described her work as Abstract Expressionism and “meditations on innocence, beauty, happiness and love.” 

“If people have a painting of mine in the house, I like them to put it in the bedroom. If it’s the first thing they see when they wake up, they respond to abstract emotions before the stresses of the day can strike.”


om pom agnes martin The Drop 1963


Agnes did several pieces in this style using a pencil or pen…


om pom agnes martin


om pom agnes martin 5


om pom agnes martin 22


Her paranoid schizophrenia meant she heard voices and sometimes fell into a trance. She claimed the voices inspired her and that she heard and saw things that others didn’t. She was often hospitalised and treated with shock therapy. She frequently wrote about her mind and thoughts…


om pom agnes martin the-adventurous-state-of mind is a high house


Although Agnes had relationships with women, she always claimed she was not a lesbian. One of these relationships was with the Greek sculptor Chyssa and when it ended in 1967, coinciding with the death of her friend the artist Ad Reinhardt, Agnes gave away all her art materials, bought a camper van with money from a grant she’d just won and left New York. Decades later she said, “I left New York because every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting. It took me several years to find out that the cause was an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.”

No one is sure where she initially went, but in 1968, at the age of 56, she rented a remote plot of land in New Mexico and single-handedly built a one room dwelling from adobe bricks (she made the bricks), followed by a log cabin which she again built herself including felling the trees. She lived a frugal existence owning very little and had no electricity or neighbours. But in 1971 she began to paint again, leaving behind her grids and painting stripes in pale pink, yellow and blue.


om pom agnes martin untitled 1977


om pom agnes martin 7 watercolour graphite, ink 1977 9 x 9 inches


Below: Agnes at her house in New Mexico 1974

agnes martin 002


Below: Arne Glimcher in Agnes’ studio in Cuba in 1977

om pom agnes martin Arne Glimcher in Agnes's studio Cuba 1977

om pom agnes martin Wind fence sculpture by agnes new mexico 1979

Above: a WIND FENCE SCULPTURE made by Agnes in New Mexico in 1979



om pom agnes martin untitled early 1980s

Above: UNTITLED early 1980s


agnes 1989

Above: UNTITLED 1989


In 1992, she moved into a retirement community in Taos, New Mexico, and at odds with her frugalness, drove every day to her studio in a white BMW!


Agnes Martin. 216B-065-087 Gallistea, NM, USA 1992 Vogue. November 1992. pp. 307 “The entry to the artist’s compound near Santa Fe.”


Below: UNTITLED 1995

om pom agnes martin untitled 1995


From 1998 – 2002 Agnes made a film called WITH MY BACK TO THE WORLD of which this is a 2 minute extract…



Agnes continued to work until just before she died and her paintings remained as strong as ever…

Below: GRATITUDE 2001

om pom agnes-martin-gratitude-2001


Below: AFFECTION 2001

om pom agnes martin affection 2001


An exhibition of some of her last paintings…

om pom agnes-martin-3-paintings--homage-to-life-the-seavenice


om pom agnes martin untitled #21 2002

Above: UNTITLED #21 2002


om pom agnes martin 17

Above: HOMAGE TO LIFE 2003


om pom agnes martin black #1

Above: BLACK #1


This is Agnes’ very last work, a drawing made in 2004…


om pom agnes martin her last drawing 2004


Agnes Martin died in December 2004 aged 92. Her great friend Arne Glimcher held her hand and sang to her. Her ashes are buried under an apricot tree in Taos.


om pom agnes martin 19


I leave you with this wonderful video of Agnes talking about not thinking…



And if you would like to read more about Agnes this book, AGNES MARTIN her life and art is now in the om pom bookshop


WORDS: Cand Juskus

IMAGES: various online sources

3 thoughts on “the art of Agnes Martin 1912 – 2004

  1. I was doing some research on art & artists & came across agnes martin & her work , the fact that she was schizophrenic really hit home with me…. I’m in love with someone who is schizophrenic .


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