The Heroic Art of Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin

an exhibition at Tate Modern, London, June 3–October 11, 2015; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, November 7, 2015–March 6, 2016; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 24–September 11, 2016; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York City, October 7, 2016–January 11, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell
D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 271 pp., $55.00
Agnes Martin, Taos, New Mexico, circa 1953
Mildred Tolbert/Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, New Mexico
Agnes Martin, Taos, New Mexico, circa 1953

London. Late summer, 2015. The city’s habitual pearly gray daylight adds, it seems, an extra layer or patina of ardor and melancholy to the Canadian-born Agnes Martin’s extraordinary mid-to-late-career paintings—images made, for the most part, on square canvases measuring seventy-two inches, and filled with stripes of varying widths and hues that remain, twelve years after Martin’s death in 2004, at age ninety-two, some of the more significant creations about spirituality, beauty, and painting itself that modernism has ever known.

There’s a literary cast to Martin’s biography—the accidental and willed isolation of it—that reminds one of Christian carrying his burdens to the Wicket Gate, seeking enlightenment in John Bunyan’s religious allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, a text that exercised a considerable influence on Martin as a child. Born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, in 1912, she was the third of four children; her parents, Malcolm and Margaret Martin, farmed the vast, sometimes hard land. “It was so flat, you know, you could see the curves of the earth,” Martin recalled in Mary Lance’s intimate documentary, With My Back to the World (2002). “And when a train came into vision at nine o’clock in the morning, it was still leaving at noon…it took that long to get across the prairie.”

By the time she was three, Martin’s father had died, according to one of several accounts, from injuries suffered during the Second Boer War, which had ended in 1902. After his death, the apparently hard and embittered Margaret moved her family a few hours east to Lumsden, where the remaining Martins settled, for a time, with Robert Kinnon, Margaret’s widowed father. The Scotch Presbyterian farmer was the young Martin’s first experience of love. “I felt ‘first’ with my grandfather,” Martin said to her last dealer, Arne Glimcher, a memory he includes in his cumbersome but visually interesting book.1 Martin continued: “I’ve never felt first with anybody else…. He was a man who tried to be virtuous, really tried…. He influenced me tremendously.”

Kinnon read, with Martin, the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and other religious texts. Kinnon’s arm’s-length ministrations (he was not physically affectionate) did not so much act as an antidote to Margaret’s coldness as become the kind of distance his granddaughter could bear—and eventually emulate. But in Margaret’s presence Martin felt a sense of constant defeat and, because of her mother, was forced to take self-reliance to a punishing, perverse degree. When Martin was six she suffered from tonsillitis. The most Margaret could manage by way of comfort was to give her daughter money for the streetcar; she’d have to deal with it on her own. She did, and, after the operation was performed, returned home, again by streetcar, alone.

In 1919 the Martins joined Robert Kinnon in Vancouver,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.