In the summer of 1967, with her New York studio scheduled for demolition and her close friend, the painter Ad Reinhardt, having recently died, Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist pioneer Agnes Martin packed up her life and disappeared.
Born in Canada to Scottish Presbyterian immigrants, Martin had trained as a teacher and spent her twenties working in remote schools in the Pacific Northwest before coming to the art world comparatively late in life. She studied fine art at Columbia University, New York and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque during the 1940s, but little work from the first 15 years of her career survives — she destroyed a good deal of her early paintings when they failed to meet her uncompromising vision. By the time she had settled at the artists’ community of Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan and counted Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg among her neighbours and friends, she had begun to forge her inimitable style with works such as Window (1957) — an abstract world of repetitions and symmetries in pastel lines and grids. Her first one-woman exhibition was held in 1958.
While she would always see herself as an Abstract Expressionist, by the 1960s Martin was being hailed as a pioneer of Minimalism. However, she had also been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was being sporadically hospitalized. Then Reinhardt’s death and the demise of the Coenties Slip studio occurred. Of that time she would later say: ‘I left New York because every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting.’
Martin disappeared for 18 months and then resurfaced in Taos, New Mexico. There she rented some land and built her own home, but she would not paint again until 1974. When she did, the work had changed — her grids had morphed into an exploration of line, the pastel greys and whites replaced with pinks, yellows and blues.
‘I paint with my back to the world,’ Martin once said. After her early career surrounded by celebrated artists of the New York avant-garde, she would live the rest of her life alone in the isolation of the New Mexico desert.
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