SANTA FE, N.M. — Some people still don’t get the grid.
Agnes Martin would have been 100 years old this year, but some people still don’t understand the framework that cemented her fame.
Considered one of the great painters of Abstract Expressionism, Martin pioneered a series of barely there colors and lines.
But eight years after her death at 92, frustrated visitors still stomp out of her gallery in Taos’ Harwood Museum of Art.
“People who are extremely sensitive and knowledgeable get it,” Harwood curator Jina Brenneman said. “I’ve seen some people with no art background at all go in and fall to their knees.
“Most people are confused and unappreciative and angry,” she acknowledged. “They’re just kind of befuddled.”
The Harwood seeks to address that confusion with the centennial exhibition “Agnes Martin: Beyond the Grid,” running through June 17. Many of the paintings have never been seen before.
First, there’s the irony of an exhibition at all. Martin never wanted her early paintings to survive, much less be shown. She destroyed as many of these early “biomorphic” works as she could. While most were irreparably damaged, some were given to Taos residents, most notably the artist Beatrice Mandelman.
“She did not want this work exhibited. She wanted it destroyed. She hated them,” Brenneman said. But “for art research and historical purposes, it will be done. We thought we could do it in a way that’s sensitive and respectful.”
Her signature style was rooted in an emphasis on lines, grids and subtle color fields. While minimalist in form, they sprang deep from within her Zen core, retaining small flaws and Martin’s unmistakable hand. After spending 1 1/2 years researching the artist, Brenneman said she knows why she looked at her early work with such disdain. The works directly reflect her artistic influences – from Adolph Gottlieb and Willem DeKooning’s organic musings to Cubist-inspired abstraction on the scale of Rothko and Newman.
But once she hit New York, she realized she was 10 years behind the times and up against a formidable boys’ club.
“You can see it in the photographs,” Brenneman said. “She’s one of the only women. Her work changed and she changed. She knew that the grid was going to make it and make her.”
Additionally, the artist sought to mythologize herself as someone self-contained enough to emerge fully formed without outside references.
But a glance at the early work reveals she was watching, indeed, Brenneman said, and well aware of the reach of her New York brethren.
Her “New Mexico Mountain Landscape, Taos” (1947) could be a Marsden Hartley or a John Marin watercolor. “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From the Garden of Eden” (1953) bears both Gorky and Gottlieb’s imprints in its organic shapes and squiggles.
“They have a bio-organic feel to them,” Brenneman said. “They’re round and sperm-like. She was just experimenting and searching for a voice as an artist.”
By 1954, those shapes stretched and streamlined into “Mid-Winter.” Brenneman discovered the painting stuffed inside a closet in the Taos Municipal Schools Historic Art Collection. Martin had donated the painting for students to study.
The Harwood is currently negotiating a 99-year loan with the school district for the work.
Fueled by a grant, Martin was extremely prolific between 1954-55. The works culminate in 1957’s grid-like “The Spring.”
“She’s set to enter into this world that’s much bigger than New Mexico,” Brenneman said. “She’s working with people who end up being some of the most important artists. She just develops a stiff upper lip. She’s going to make a point to be successful.”
The abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt introduced her to Thomas Merton, who helped found Christ in the Desert Monastery.
“All of a sudden you had an exposure to this Catholicism and Zen Buddhism,” Brenneman said.
Brenneman also threads a line between Martin’s tough, Calvinistic childhood on the horizontal plains of Saskatchewan to her spare but linear compositions. Her father died when she was 2; her mother survived by purchasing old properties and renovating them. Her maternal grandfather used the Bible and John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” to mold her.
Martin began drawing at an early age and moved to the U.S. to attend Western Washington College of Education in Bellingham. She started teaching high school in various states, then transferred to the Teachers College at New York’s Columbia University. She also taught in New Mexico schools. During this time, she attended seminars taught by Krishnamurti and Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki.
“There’s so many myths about Agnes Martin,” Brenneman said. “One of them is she was inspired by the New Mexico landscape. It’s not the New Mexico landscape. It’s this cold Canadian youth and Calvinism.”
By 1958, Parson Gallery was hosting a Martin solo exhibition. She had begun creating abstract paintings in place of landscapes and portraits. According to a London Times critic, she came into artistic maturity around 1960. Her method included “a square format; canvas primed with two layers of gesso; hand-drawn pencil lines; thin layers of paint, first in oils, then in acrylic.”
Her work became both lucrative and critically acclaimed. When her home in New York’s Coentis Slip was marked for demolition in 1967, she left the art world, giving away most of her possessions, and embarked in a cross-country journey of the U.S. and Canada. She would not paint for seven years. She resettled in New Mexico, built an adobe house by herself and focused on writing instead. Her work reflected a quiet and simple life. Today her paintings are in collections in the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Brenneman still finds herself educating visitors about the artist.
In Taos, an older woman with a British accent exited the octagonal Agnes Martin Gallery and asked Brenneman, “Why don’t you have anything in that back gallery?” She said, “- the big gallery with the empty frames.”
“A lot of people don’t have a reference point to anything other than a traditional work of art,” Brenneman explained. Martin’s paintings are “also very subtle; the depth – it takes a lot of ability to see. There’s a very poetic light touch. It’s this carefully penciled lines and washes.”
Brenneman escorted the woman from painting to painting.
“She was like, ‘Oh, I get it’,” Brenneman said. “She was delighted with the work. She felt educated.”