In 1957, forty-five-year-old artist Agnes Martin rented a studio in Coenties Slip among the abandoned buildings along the dilapidated waterfront of lower Manhattan. An old sailmaker’s loft with two skylights, no water and very little heat, it was one of the happiest times in her life. “Humor, endless possibilities, and rampant freedom,” she said.
Above: Agnes Martin in her Coenties Slip studio; 1960. Photo by Alexander Liberman.
By this time, group of American artists, now known as the Abstract Expressionists or New York School, had become internationally renowned. “We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world destroyed by a great depression and a fierce world war. It was impossible at that time to paint the kind of paintings we were doing – flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello,” explained Barnett Newman, an artist associated with the movement. Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and others emphasized personal expression and the characteristics of paint on canvas to communicate truths about humanity in the post-war era.
Left: Jackson Pollock; No. 22, 1950; enamel paint on Masonite; approx. 22 in x 22 in. Pollock dripped, splashed, threw and flung paint onto canvases laid on the floor. Instead of using lines to depict outlines of real objects, the interlacing webs of paint not only record the effects of gravity, velocity, and chance on the fluid properties of paint, but can also be interpreted as manifestations of his physical and unconscious emotional struggles during the creative process.
Right: Mark Rothko; Untitled, 1955; oil on canvas; 6 feet 3 in × 52 in × 3 in. Rothko wanted the viewer to stand close to the canvas to experience the visual nuances, such as luminosity and darkness, within the large layered, thin washes of colors. Zones of textured colors seem to emerge and submerge, offering the viewer, Rothko believed, a ‘place’ to perceive profound concepts such as tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime.
Around the time that Martin moved to New York City, another group of young American artists, many of whom had studios in Coenties Slip, were reacting against what they saw as the emotional and personal excesses of Abstract Expressionism. The Minimalists reduced their art to its simplest, most essential elements that made no personal reference to the artist.
Donald Judd; Untitled (Yellow), 1964; Anodized aluminum; approx. 25 in × 14 in × 6 feet 4 in. Judd’s art doesn’t refer to anything but itself. The repeated elements are designed to highlight the individual characteristics (shape, weight, reflectivity) of each component of the work and how they relate to the work as a whole, to the space it occupies, and to the viewer.
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1912, Agnes Martin described the expansive prairie that her father farmed as “so flat you could see the curves of the earth. When a train came into vision at nine o’clock in the morning, it was still leaving at noon.” Her father died when she was very young. Her mother, who built and renovated homes, used cold and ruthless silence to detach from her children. Martin learned to take self-reliance to an aberrant degree: for example, when suffering from tonsillitis at age six, her mother handed her money for the streetcar to get the hospital. After the operation, she returned home, again by streetcar, alone. Martin took refuge in solitude by looking at pictures, reading, drawing and swimming.
By 1957, Martin had received two degrees from New York’s Columbia University, moved to New Mexico, and became a teacher and painter. Aspiring to develop further as an artist, she moved east, where she would eventually merge the sensory experience of Abstract Expressionism with the disciplined austerity of Minimalism in her work.
The art studios in Coenties Slip were a haven from the drinking, brawling, macho and very straight world of the Abstract Expressionists uptown. There was abundant light during the day, silence at night, and camaraderie among the struggling writers, poets and artists – Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Lenore Tawney, Chryssa – who lived and worked there. In the pre-Stonewall era, when it was very dangerous and career-ending to be ‘out’, Martin was welcomed and safe.
Martin was hospitalized repeatedly while living in Coenties Slip and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Her symptoms included auditory hallucinations, depression and catatonic trances. The “voices”, sometimes punitive and sometimes protective, did not tell her what to paint, but did direct almost every other aspect of her life. Deeply influenced by Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Martin tried to deconstruct her sense of self, frightening as it was at times, to find rest in the peaceful state of a “vacant mind”.
Over the next few years, Martin painted increasingly abstract images that expressed visions she experienced of “the most simple, powerful things” that were devoid of personal or biographical elements. The visions came slowly. Sometimes she waited for weeks, rocking in her chair, meditating until a fully developed postage-sized abstract image formed in her mind. “I was sitting (thinking about trees) waiting for an inspiration, and into my mind there came a grid with lines going this way and lines going that way. And they were innocent. They looked like innocence. … I thought, this is my vision.” The horizontal and vertical lines of a grid, like a repeated mantra, became an “ego-less” forum to resolve her infinitely extendible, elusive visions – from chaos to calm.
If you draw a diagonal, that’s loose at both ends. I don’t like circles – too expanding. When I draw horizontals, you see this big plane and you have certain feelings, like you’re expanding over the plane.
Images of Martin’s paintings don’t do them justice; try to see one in person. Move a bit farther than an arm’s-length away “so the entire canvas fills your field of vision, just as you would cross an empty beach to get to the ocean,” Martin said. Be patient, be silent, take time to pause and perceive her tenderness.
My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent. … Contemplate the experience and the works. … If we can perceive ourselves in the work – not the work, but ourselves when viewing the work – then the work is important.
For decades, Martin made her 6 feet x 6 feet square paintings in exactly the same way. She primed the canvas with two coats of gesso to prevent the paint from seeping into the canvas, worked out the mathematics to scale it up to size, and then, using tape and a short ruler, marked out the grid by gently dragging a graphite pencil across the weave of the linen canvas. Color came next – acrylic paint, thinned to a wash by adding water – applied quickly to create a faint trace of brushstrokes and the appearance of paint melting on the surface. If there were any errors or drips, she destroyed the canvas and began again.
Agnes Martin in her studio: L – in Coenties Slip, NYC, 1966. Photograph by Diane Arbus; R – in Gallistea, NM, 1992. Vogue.
Although she became successful in the inner circle of the art world, the public often viewed her paintings as ridiculous, just lined paper. Then, during the sweltering heat of the summer of 1967, after the city condemned the building where she lived, her close friend and mentor Ad Reinhardt died, and a personal relationship ended, she had a severe breakdown. When she recovered, Martin purchased a pickup and camper and left New York City.
After eighteen months on the road, she hand-made adobe bricks and built a house on a remote mesa and then a log-cabin studio from trees she cut down with a chainsaw. The voices were strict – she was to paint “with her back to the world” – that is, without running water or electricity, the company of a partner, child, close friend, pet, TV, radio, phone or music.
In the 1970s, Martin opened up her grids by emphasizing the intervals between the lines; variations of light and color created different sensations of space and atmosphere, as “though the energy of a Pollock drip painting has been stretched out and carefully sustained over time” (Tate Museum). In the final phase of her career, she introduced ethereal colors to stripes, triangles, trapezoids and squares “to surrender to the inherent happiness and innocence and beauty within the depths of our minds.” Her work appeared in collections and museums around the world; she became wealthy.
As physical difficulties came with age, Martin added some basic modern conveniences to her home and reduced the size of her canvases to 5 feet x 5 feet so that she could still carry them around her studio by herself. She became more social and gave a series of public lectures; she wrote prose and poetry, made a film, and did some volunteer work with children. At age eighty, she moved into a retirement community in Taos where she read Agatha Christie novels (she enjoyed their repetitive structure), had an occasional martini, and drove back and forth to her studio every day in a gift from her close friend and art dealer, Arne Glimcher – a big white Mercedes. In 2003, Martin made her last work of art, a line drawing of leaf.
When the end came in 2004, Glimcher held her hand and sang her favorite song, Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. Martin was ninety-two. Because state law forbade honoring her request to bury her remains on the grounds of the local museum where she had donated her work, Glimcher climbed over the fence surrounding the property during the middle of the night and scattered her ashes around the roots of an apricot tree.
Cradled on the mountain I can rest
Solitude and freedom are the same
under every fallen leaf
– Agnes Martin
The above works by Martin, Pollock, Rothko, and Judd are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection.
Krass, Rosalind. “Grids.” October, vol. 9, 1979, pp. 51–64.
Agnes Martin – Tate Shots: https://youtu.be/902YXjchQsk
Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, Thames and Hudson, 2015