Agnes Martin, 92; Abstract Painter Won the Golden Lion

Times Staff Writer

Agnes Martin, a reclusive abstract painter who won the Golden Lion for her contribution to contemporary art at the 1997 Venice Biennale, died Thursday at Plaza de Retiro, a retirement residence in Taos, N.M., where she had lived since 1991.

Martin, Canadian-born but a naturalized American citizen since 1940, was 92. Her death was caused by complications of pneumonia, said William Himes, administrator of Plaza de Retiro.

Flat geometric grids or bars, often drawn in pencil on square canvases washed in thin acrylic paints, characterized Martin's mature works. These distinctive paintings, usually as wide as a viewer's outstretched arms, straddled the subjective, often transcendental aspirations of her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in the 1940s and '50s and the more rational, objectively aligned art of 1960s Minimalism.

Martin's repetition of geometric shapes and her use of compositions that refused to arrange those shapes into a hierarchy led some critics to characterize her as a Minimalist painter.

But Martin insisted on a crucial difference. "The Minimalists are idealists," she once said. "They want to minimize themselves in favor of the ideal.... But I just can't. You see, my paintings are not cool."

An acute attention to life's quiet rhythms characterized her work.

The landmark exhibition of Minimalist painting and sculpture at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art last summer got the distinction exactly right. Martin was a painter of major significance. Rather than give her a principal place within an artistic sensibility that was only tangential to her poetic work, however, the museum included a modest selection of very small canvases that suggested the loose relationship between austere Minimalism and her soulful, contemplative paintings.

Among the small canvases in MOCA's show was an untitled 1962 work barely 12 inches on a side. Small enough to be held in the hands, the work is framed in hand-rubbed pear wood, which emphasizes tactile appeal. Bluish-gray oil paint covers the canvas, which is stretched over board. A grid lightly drawn in pencil repeats the square shape of the canvas to make the painting's internal composition. At the center of each pencil square, a small brass nail has been gently tapped into place. The exposed nailheads, like the lines of the grid, suggest a repetitive, almost meditative process undertaken in making a physical object. The little painting has the uncanny power of a modern amulet.

Among interests that included the heartfelt nature poetry of William Wordsworth and the visionary aesthetics of William Blake, Martin was also a devotee of the ancient Chinese mystical philosopher Chuang Tzu, who died about 275 BC. As St. Paul followed Jesus, interpreting his moral precepts in written form, so Chuang Tzu followed Lao Tzu, developing his elder's Taoist ideas regarding the subjective rhythms of human experience. Martin's abstract paintings embody a materialist understanding of reality.

In a 1973 prose poem she wrote, "I would rather think of humility than anything else."

Martin was nearly 50 when she developed the spiritually profound work for which she is now almost universally admired.

The daughter of Scottish Presbyterian pioneers, she was born Agnes Bernice Martin in Macklin, Saskatchewan, in 1912 and grew up in Vancouver. She immigrated to Washington state at 19, then moved to New York City after gaining citizenship to study education at Columbia University, where she also began to draw and paint. Graduate studies and a teaching stint at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque had a profound effect on her.

In 1947, Martin participated in a university study program in Taos at the Harwood Museum, where she had her first exhibition that June. The five years spent in Taos were marked by extreme poverty and hardship, but they also exposed the young artist to a distinctive attitude toward art that had a deep influence on her own development. Since the 1920s, the remote, centuries-old town in the high desert had been a magnet for artists chary of the soul-crushing pressures of the modern industrial world.

In the decade after World War II, Taos attracted progressive painters from New York and San Francisco, then the two principal centers for American abstract art. The Harwood Museum's small but choice collection now represents this specific strain of modern art, including evocative landscapes by Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Ernest Blumenschein from early in the 20th century, and poetic abstractions by Richard Diebenkorn, Edward Corbett and Clay Spohn in the mid-20th century. In 1997, the museum opened a permanent installation of a suite of seven paintings by Martin, each composed from subtly different horizontal bars of pale color.

Martin returned to New York in 1957 and took a studio at Coenties Slip, a two-block stretch of artists' lofts near South Ferry. Her now celebrated, but then largely unheralded, neighbors included Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist, although she was not known to socialize much. Martin's organic, vaguely Surrealist abstractions from New Mexico slowly gave way to variations on the grid format.

Her first New York show was at the legendary Betty Parsons Gallery in 1958. Parsons had visited Martin's studio in Taos the year before, during a sojourn to see the British expatriate artist Dorothy Brett, who had immigrated to New Mexico with Frieda and D.H. Lawrence. The dealer bought five paintings and offered gallery representation if Martin would move to New York. The sales provided the impoverished artist with money necessary for the move, and Kelly, who was also represented by Parsons, helped Martin find studio space.

By 1960, Martin had settled on the type of work she would pursue for the next four decades, superimposing tremulous pencil lines and carefully applied washes of color. Her first solo exhibition in Los Angeles was held in 1965 at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, where she showed again five years later.

Her work, however, was not pursued without interruption. Coenties Slip was slated for demolition in 1967. Martin packed her things into a pickup truck and camper and spent the next year and a half traveling the Western United States and Canada. Writing replaced painting.

After returning to New Mexico, she spent the rest of her life working there -- first in the small village of Cuba, then in Galisteo from 1977 to 1992, and finally in Taos. Her first major retrospective was organized at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art in 1973, and its only other venue was the Pasadena Museum of Art (now the Norton Simon Museum). Her first European retrospective was organized by London's Hayward Gallery four years later, and New York's Whitney Museum of American Art mounted one in 1992.

The exhibition "In Pursuit of Perfection: The Art of Agnes Martin, Maria Martinez and Florence Pierce" is at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe through Jan. 23. It joins examples of Martin's abstract grids with the famous black-on-black ceramic vessels of Martinez (1887-1980) and fiberglass and resin panels by Pierce.

In addition to Venice's Golden Lion, Martin was awarded prizes by the German and Austrian governments for her contributions to painting. In 1998, she received the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts.

She is survived by a grandnephew, Derrick Martin.

At Martin's request, no formal service or memorial is planned.

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