Agnes Martin, who lived to be 92, was a painter who developed a substantial reputation during her long life, as Nancy Princenthal wrote in her well-received new book, “Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art” (Thames & Hudson). In her introduction, the writer calls the artist “one of the most esteemed abstract painters of the second half of the twentieth century, [who] expressed — and at times, dwelled in — the most extreme forms of abstraction: pure, silencing, enveloping and upending.”
Princenthal gave a reading from her biography at Manhattan’s FLAG Art Foundation on August 5. The event attracted an overflow crowd, with many standing. The audience also saw the related exhibition there, “Space Between,” which includes work from Martin, her friend Ellsworth Kelly, Sadie Benning, Douglas Coupland, Andreas Gursky, Tony DeLap and many others.
Hallmarks of the paintings themselves are a selection from only a small group of forms, as Princenthal wrote, “grids, stripes, and, very occasionally, circles, triangles, or squares — and painted in a limited palette on canvases that are always squares.” Many of her canvases featured ruled pencil lines. “She had a pencil in her hand until the day she died,” Princethal said, adding that another element that’s key to her work is the use of “luminous color.”
Martin was originally from Macklin, a small town in the wheat-growing region of Saskatchewan, Canada, and her biographer covered her entire life in her talk, beginning with the painter’s birthplace, which was characterized, she said, by its “extremes of temperature.”
Much of that life, Princenthal pointed out, was “straitened in material terms,” and added that Martin “always sought a kind of solitude.” That first characteristic was partly the result of beginning her career during the Great Depression. Making a living as an artist in New York in the Fifties was also economically challenging. Yet Martin preferred a simplified, stripped-down life, even after she became wealthy in her later years. Princenthal, too, wrote and spoke frankly about Martin’s mental illness — she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and treated for it for decades with hospitalizations, ECT, drug and talk therapy. Discussing this aspect of her life was once regarded as beyond the pale in the art world — a form of betrayal — but “Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art” presents the artist as a woman in full.
“Space Between” will be on display until August 14.