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The Art World's 'Best-Kept Secret'

Long revered by critics, the Minimalist artist has led a simple life free of public adulation Painter Agnes Martin:

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 1996


THERE'S something about the diminutive grand dame of Minimalism, painter Agnes Martin, that drives otherwise reasonable art critics and collectors to the sort of hyperbole usually reserved for religious experiences. ''Exquisite,'' ''rapturous,'' ''shimmering spirituality,'' are typical of the accolades found in reviews of her work over the nearly half century she has been painting.

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Martin's work has been shown all over the world, from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan, and it hangs in top American museums such as New York's Whitney and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museums. Yet for all the acclaim and recognition by art-world cognoscenti, her name and work remain surprisingly unknown to the general public.

''She has been one of the best-kept secrets in the art world,'' asserts Arne Glimcher, chairman of the PaceWildenstein gallery in Los Angeles and Martin's longtime friend and supporter. ''There are only a few senior artists alive in the world today, and she is one of them.'' This lack of recognition has to do in part with Martin's own attitude toward fame and her work. At the height of her renown in the late 1960s, she took seven years off, Mr. Glimcher explains, ''because she couldn't bear the adulation'' and felt it was hindering her work.

Martin is renowned for a reclusive lifestyle - a purity of pursuit that some say is mirrored in the uncluttered simplicity of her paintings. Indeed, an exhibition that opened at the PaceWildenstein Jan. 11 is as remarkable for the new works (14 new paintings, all done in 1995, all measuring 5 by 5 ft. - a departure from the 6-by-6 ft. format she had favored for some 35 years previously) as for the fact that Martin attended the opening night bash, something she hasn't done since 1962.

''A lot of younger artists came to pay their respects,'' notes Glimcher, adding that for many this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Without question, an air of pilgrimage hung over the gallery crowds as they hovered around the gray-haired matriarch of contemporary art. Martin held court with the polite reserve of someone who is infinitely more comfortable working in solitude than with shaking the hands of strangers. She explains her shyness by saying that she has always wanted people to look at her works, not her.

For the uninitiated, her work requires a lot of looking. After dropping any suggestion of representational work in the '60s, Martin has painted variations on a horizontal line motif, exclusively. The colors vary, the bands widen and narrow, but the basic idea remains. ''My paintings are about quiet happiness, a nonobjective happiness like the lightness of the morning,'' muses Martin.

Martin's work comes from a personal meditation, a state that is a combination of the many Buddhist authors she's read over the years and her personal commitment to a simplicity of life and mind.

For this very reason, Martin herself long ago retreated from the fast pace of Manhattan to the wide open spaces of Taos, N.M., a place favored by artistic legends like Georgia O'Keeffe.

To properly appreciate a Martin painting, the viewer also has to slow down. Robert Ellis, director of the Harwood Museum in Taos, explains, ''You have to give Agnes's work time to speak to you,'' because if you simply dismiss the paintings as a bunch of stripes and move on, you will miss the joyous, spiritual experience they hold. He adds, with significant understatement, ''Her work is deceptively simple.''