3 June – 11 October 2015
The first retrospective of the American abstract painter since her death in 2004.
Born in Canada in 1912, Agnes Martin moved to the US aged 19 to study to be a teacher. She took jobs as an art instructor at schools in Washington, Delaware and New Mexico, but it was her own work that caught the attention of influential gallery owner Betty Parsons. Parsons persuaded Martin to go to New York to focus on her painting.
In Manhattan Martin became part of a vibrant artistic social circle, which included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman and Ad Reinhardt. Her work became increasingly experimental during this period, and she was offered exhibitions at galleries around the city.
In 1967, despite the fact her career was just taking off, Martin left New York and abandoned her artistic work completely. She later explained: 'Every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting'. In search of solitude, she travelled across the US and Canada for almost two years before finally settling back in New Mexico, where she would spend the rest of her life.
Her return to art came in 1973, with a portfolio of prints composed of variously proportioned grids and parallel lines [On a Clear Day]. It marked a distinct new phase in her practice; restrained, reductive and strikingly minimalist. In New York she had worked in strong tones of black, white and brown, but now she created delicate colour washes in pale blues, reds and yellows.
Her approach bears the influence of Asian belief systems; at university she had attended lectures by a Zen Buddhist scholar and become deeply interested in such ways of thought – not as a religion but as a practical how-to approach to life. She wanted her compositions to inspire a meditative contemplation of art, 'I paint analogies of belonging and sharing with everything'.
This show at Tate Modern brings together pieces from both her early and late career, revealing her profound influence on the abstract movement.
Despite the fact Martin did her best to seek out and destroy paintings from the years when she was taking her first steps into abstraction, the exhibition features examples of her experimental early practice – such as The Garden from 1958, for which she glued rows of found objects onto a background canvas.