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.
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.''
Born in Saskatchewan in 1912, Martin came to the United States in her late teens. She attended Columbia Teacher's College in New York and made her first journey to the desert after only five years in the city. She returned to Manhattan in 1957 at the request of gallery owner Betty Parsons.
During her years in New York, Martin mingled with some of the top painters of her day - Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman - and began the artistic journey that took her from traditional representational art training to the purely Minimalist approach she's continued to explore ever since. Dubbed a Minimalist by the critics, she has always called herself an Abstract Expressionist, ''because my work is about pure emotion and it's completely nonobjective.''
Critics over the years have tried to locate the influences in her work, such as fellow artists or her physical environment. But Martin herself will not lay claim to the influences of any other artists, saying, ''I don't believe in influences of any kind.'' And she actually takes offense at any attempt to see suggestions of nature in her work. ''I don't work from nature at all. I look in my mind and I see composition.''
An artist cannot live as long as Martin has without acquiring detractors, although many of her admirers profess astonishment about negative criticism in terms one usually finds in political or religious circles. Says Glimcher, ''I've only heard words of reverence about Martin. She's accepted like the Grand Canyon.'' Robert Ellis likens her to a saint.
But award-winning critic and painter Theodore Wolff says that although Martin's work has an obvious attractiveness about it, the painfully reductive nature of her work puts the burden on the viewer.
''She gives you very little to work with, in fact, she puts the entire creative act in your lap.''
Mr. Wolff says that Martin may be the darling of the critics, but many working painters do not feel the same way. In fact, he says, the really hard-working painters in New York today think of Martin as a dilettante.
Whatever one thinks of Martin's work, however, she has unquestionably dedicated her life to it. Never married, she has no children.
''An artist shouldn't even take the vote,'' she has been quoted as saying, maintaining that in order to preserve the necessary purity to create, an artist should stay above the social and political currents of the day.
Although she stands out as a rare female artist in a period dominated by strong male artists, feminist issues don't concern her.
''I've never felt being a woman affected my career in any way,'' she says simply.
And although the art world reverberated with the significance of her long-awaited appearance on Jan. 11, it appears that Martin has, if anything, stayed true to form in her personal actions as well.
When asked why she ventured out to the opening, she said simply, ''Arne asked me to.'' Some things really are simple. So says painter Agnes Martin.
* Agnes Martin's new works will be displayed at the PaceWildenstein gallery , L.A., through Feb. 3.