Agnes Martin - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • A rare example of Agnes Martin’s Minimalist bravura, Untitled, circa 1961, represents a pivotal moment in the artist’s career when she was living in New York and embracing new media. Redolent of post-war conceptions of beauty and the “sublime,” the present work was scrupulously executed using oil and gold leaf, lending the work a special spiritual resonance only embodied by the artist’s finest works. Despite its clarity and essential reduction of form, Untitled exudes joy—a glimmer of triumph through tranquility, a happy quiet.

    "When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is in the mind, not in the eye. In our minds, we have an awareness of perfection that leads us on."
    — Agnes Martin

    The artist was just as meticulous when selecting which works could leave her studio and enter the market, accounting for the very few paintings from this period coming to auction. Emblematic of Martin’s classification of herself not as a Minimalist but instead as an Abstract Expressionist, Untitled betrays a richness of emotion that underscores her role as one of the most important abstract painters of the 20th century.


    Gold Grids


    One of only five works the artist executed in her lifetime with gold leaf—and the only one to come to auction—Untitled simultaneously evokes both the clarity of Minimalism as well as the elaborate use of the gold’s symbolism for reverence in icon paintings. Of the other four paintings which incorporate this medium, two are housed in institutional collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the other two in the esteemed private collections of Emily Fisher Landau, New York, and the Collection Pinault, Paris. Having remained in the same private collection for nearly three decades, Untitled represents an exceptional opportunity to acquire a jewel-like masterwork by one of the most renowned artists of the past century.


    [left] Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908. Oesterreichische Galerie im Belvedere, Vienna, Photo credit Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY [right] Konoe Nobuhiro, Six-panel folding screen, early 17th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

    Gold leaf is a material replete with art historical associations, from early Italian Renaissance painting, to 16th and 17th century Japanese folding screens, to Gustav Klimt’s ethereal portraits of the early 20th century. In Untitled, Martin achieves a richly complex surface, interspersed with luminous detail made possible by her use of this medium. The result is a beautiful tension between the gridded perfection of the dots and the handmade, meticulous process by which they were rendered. Here, manual precision informs the making of the composition as much as geometry does, as Untitled superbly embodies the discreet expressiveness that is a hallmark of Martin’s corpus.

    "I thought [the grid] represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied."
    — Agnes Martin

    [left] Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation of Nets, 1962. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Artwork © 2020 Yayoi Kusama [right] Barnett Newman, The Promise, 1949. Whitney Museum of American Art/New York, Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    The grid itself was very much replete with art historical associations during this works competition in the early 1960s. Though it was of course the hallmark symbol of Piet Mondrian’s visual idiom, its articulation of flatness and egalitarian structure appealed to many postwar artists as well, including Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. As a counterpoint to the organic, burgeoning squares of Yayoi Kusama’s Accumulation of Nets, 1962, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the grid’s significance to Martin could be found instead in its purity of form: “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind, and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.”i

  • Gold Leaf Works

  • Agnes’s New York Years


    In 1957, Martin moved from New Mexico to New York, financed in part with the help of Betty Parsons who first encountered the artist’s work a few years prior. In New York, Martin found residence just around the corner from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and forged close friendships with Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, all of whom had a considerable influence on her work. In these years, Martin’s work became increasingly geometric and abstract, culminating in paintings such as Untitled, circa 1961. Martin had three gallery exhibitions at Betty Parsons Gallery between 1958 and 1961, a testament to her growing popularity and engagement with the flourishing New York art scene. The years leading up to Untitled were undoubtedly some of her most formative, as she learned from her contemporaries and honed her signature Minimalist aesthetic.

    "Without awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness…one cannot make works of art."
    — Agnes Martin

    Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Number 33, 1963. Whitney Museum of American Art/New York, Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Estate of Ad Reinhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Though unquestionably influenced by the hard-edged, flat surfaces of Kelly and Reinhardt, Martin’s canvases retain an unmistakable intimacy and emotive power. She looked to female artists such as Lenore Tawney, whose woven hanging “sculptures” provided a different point of reference for Martin. The effect of Tawney’s tactile, stitched surfaces is apparent in works such as Untitled, as Martin’s hand is distinctly visible in the tender, painted dots that lace the canvas. These dots are rendered with such care, that they in a sense bely the very essence of what her male counterparts were trying to achieve—the erasure of the artist’s hand. Martin’s painstaking, repetitive process—one that has been likened to weaving—is wholly visible in Untitled, where simplicity and intricacy coalesce.


    A Pivotal Moment


    Untitled belongs to a pivotal yet brief moment in the artist’s career, from 1958-1962, when she experimented with a diverse range of media, producing what are arguably some of her most unique and thought-provoking canvases. Emphasis on materiality takes center stage in these works, as evidenced by The Garden, from 1958, Des Moines Art Center's Louise Noun Collection of Art by Women, an assemblage composed of found materials such as debris, wood and knobs; Little Sister, 1962, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, incorporates Martin’s signature gridded canvas, but punctuated by physical nails which barely protrude from the surface. The culmination of a labor-intensive process applying oil, gold leaf, and likely rabbit skin glue on canvas, Untitled demonstrates Martin’s acute interest in materiality whilst simultaneously typifying her mature aesthetic: the square support, grid-like format, and flat surface.

    "An artist is fortunate in that his work is the inner contemplation of beauty, of perfection in life. We cannot make anything perfectly, but with inner contemplation of perfection, we can suggest it."
    — Agnes Martin

    Agnes Martin, Little Sister, 1962. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Photo credit The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY Artwork © 2020 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Night Sea, 1963, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the last work in which Martin used gold leaf, and by 1964 she had abandoned her use of experimental media altogether in a move she associated with humility and restraint. She began using “humble” media such as graphite and colored pencil, applied directly to minimally prepared canvases, in an effort to “[collapse] the distinction between painting and drawing.”ii Thus, Untitled represents a fleeting yet powerful moment in the artist’s career, just as she had honed her mature style in New York, and before she would embark on a new chapter of art making in New Mexico until her passing in 2004.

    i Agnes Martin, quoted in interview with Suzan Campbell, conducted May 15, 1989, transcript in Archives of American Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    ii Briony Fer, The Infinite Line: Re-making Art After Modernism, New Haven, 2004, p. 56

    • Provenance

      The Artist
      Robert Elkon Gallery, New York
      Christie's New York, May 13, 1981, lot 86
      Private Collection
      Vivian Horan Fine Art, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1993

    • Literature

      Tiffany Bell, ed., Agnes Martin Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings, New York, 2017 - ongoing, no. 1961.054, online (illustrated)

    • 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 Midwestern Private Collection

Ο ◆6


oil and gold leaf on canvas
11 7/8 x 11 7/8 in. (30.2 x 30.2 cm)
Executed circa 1961.

Full Cataloguing

$1,800,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for $2,450,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278 


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020