Agnes Martin - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 18, 2017 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • Provenance

    Pace Gallery, New York
    Waddington Galleries, London
    Christie's, New York, November 20, 1996, lot 50
    Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, Pace Gallery, Agnes Martin: New Paintings, September 19 - October 25, 1986
    Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; Museum Wiesbaden; Munich, Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte; Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Agnes Martin: Paintings and Drawings, March 22, 1991 - January 6, 1992, pp. 125, 159 (illustrated)

  • Literature

    Nancy Grimes, "New York Reviews: Agnes Martin: Pace," Art News, no. 85, December 1986, p. 140 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.”

    There is hardly a more mysterious tone than gray, and gray became the focus of Agnes Martin’s paintings throughout the 1980s. Abandoning her earlier gridded canvases in favor of uninterrupted vertical and horizontal bands, Martin began executing works embodying an ethereal, evanescent beauty in varying shades of gray. Untitled #1 from 1985 is a stunning example of her aesthetic of this time. Indeed, it is such an exemplar of these mid-1980s works that it was included in Martin’s major travelling exhibition, which travelled from the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam through to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, in honor of her being awarded the inaugural Alexej von Jawlensky Prize in 1990. Broad, evenly spaced bands of deep, slate-gray alternate with those of a lighter, more cloud-like quality, synthesizing a hypnotic composition of line and form and shade. Martin’s specific process of mixing acrylic with gesso at once lends her work a matte tonality and adds a particular luminescence to the painting. Executed in her standard format (for this time period) of a 72 x 72 inch square – a size which Martin specifically chose for its particularly human scale – the painting seems to hover in space, a sort of portal into an indeterminate emotional landscape. The distinct linearity of the composition coupled with its particularly unsubstantiated palette causes the painting to flicker before the viewer, a constant push/pull of focus and haze, a perpetual flux between knowing what is real and what is imagined, what is emotion and what is intellect, what is seen and what is innately understood.

    Landscape is evoked everywhere in Martin’s oeuvre: the orientation of the work suggests the horizon that demarcates the open skies from the vast expanses of desert; the coloring is reminiscent of cool dawns and damp river clay; the gravelly texture effects the touch of sand. One imagines the artist looking over the New Mexico landscape, inspired by the incandescent and austere quietude of her surroundings. However, those surroundings, while implicit in her work, were not what it was “about” per se. "A lot of people say that my work is like landscape. But the truth is that it isn't, because there are no straight lines in nature. My work is non-objective, like that of the abstract expressionists. But I want people, when they look at my paintings, to have the same feelings they experience when they look at a landscape so I never protest when they say my work is like a landscape. But it's really about a feeling of beauty and freedom that you experience in a landscape" (Agnes Martin quoted in Irving Sandler interview, Art Monthly, no. 169, September, 1993).

    These formal qualities of her painting and drawing manifest Martin’s specific spirituality. Martin thought of geometry as an appropriate vehicle for spiritual content and her manipulation of the logic of geometry served a higher pursuit of a classical perfection, which the artist considered absent from nature and held only in the mind. The painting’s orderly composition is guided by objective standards and particular rules – mathematical to be precise. Ever enigmatic, and yet finding nothing contradictory in her mode of thought, Martin synthesized an artistic understanding that bridged the seemingly divinely inspired, rationality of the hard sciences with the ephemeral qualities of the emotional and psychological. "Taking a cue from artists such as Rothko, Newman, Reinhardt, Martin began to appreciate that geometry could be used in the service of spiritual contemplation. It was not that geometry could represent the reality of the sublime, but that it could offer a means of attaining a 'plane of attention and awareness' upon which the perception of sublimity depended" (Barbara Haskell, "Agnes Martin: The Awareness of Perfection," Agnes Martin, exh. cat, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 102).

    A deep and abiding sense of the sublime is tantamount in Untitled #1. The economy of means employed both in its composition and coloration imbues the work with the same sense of geometric order and universal understanding after which the Modernist abstract painters sought (and which was similarly pursued by their theoretical progeny in the machismo Abstract Expressionist and Minimalists) yet mediated and counterbalanced with a distinctly ego-less delicacy of touch. The same type of focus that Martin employs in her paintings is not so dissimilar from that of her fellow New Mexican transplant Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe’s more moderately scaled paintings were so closely cropped to their subjects that they instill in the viewer a sense of having physically shrunken to a diminutive, nearly insect-like size. At such a level, the petals of a flower become as grand and encompassing as the expanse of the firmament above. In the same way, Martin’s paintings act almost as enlarged crops of a single brush stroke – a single moment in the artist’s composition enhanced beyond physical recognition but instilling the same sense of awe and admiration. Both artists were masters of paring down the forms within their art to their most reductive elements in order to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize a sense of transcendent reality.

    Simultaneously patient and relentless, Martin’s formal reduction and repetition – in line with the Taoist philosophy that influenced much of her career – is a spiritual gesture, aiming at unearthing the transcendental and the absolute beyond that which is readily perceivable by one’s senses. Painted ten years after Martin’s relocation to New Mexico, Untitled #1 clearly elucidates her stripped down notion of composition and perspective, virtually eliminating any element of ego and materiality in order to make room for the purest form of perfection and the sublime. The present work demonstrates Martin’s consummate achievement of both the ineffable and the concrete; Untitled #1 instills in the viewer a host of sensations and ideas, which are readily identifiable but impossible to define. “We are in the midst of reality responding with joy. It is an absolutely satisfying experience but extremely elusive… Works of art have successfully represented our response to reality from the beginning. The artist tries to live in a way that will make greater awareness of the sublimity of reality possible. Reality, the truth about life and the mystery of beauty are all the same and they are the first concerns of everyone.” (Dieter Schwarz, ed., Agnes Martin: Writings, Ostfildern, 1992, p. 93)

  • Artist Biography

    Agnes Martin

    American • 1912 - 2004

    As an artist defined by minimalism and abstract expressionism, Agnes Martin found serenity in her work. Commonly believed to have schizophrenia, Martin may have exercised her orderly grids and pastel colors as a way to find peace. After moving from Canada to New York City and earning her M.A. at Columbia University, she was supported by other talented artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana. Martin began her career with exhibitions at Betty Parson's Gallery, and her work quickly traveled internationally from there. Eventually moving to New Mexico, the artist ended her career and cut off all social ties. Martin was represented by Pace Gallery from 1975 and was recently given a retrospective at Tate Modern in 2015.

    View More Works

Property from a Distinguished American Collection


Untitled #1

signed and dated "a. martin 1985" on the reverse
gesso, acrylic and graphite on canvas
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Executed in 1985.

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for $3,946,000

Contact Specialist
Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1267

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2017