Known Forever in the Mind:
Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim
By Ann Binlot
“My paintings are not about what is seen,” Agnes Martin (1912–2004) once said. “They are about what is known forever in the mind.” On the surface, the artist’s work—marked by a neutral palette, grids, and stripes—looks subdued, structured, and repetitive, but a closer look reveals universal emotions: happiness, joy, innocence, tranquility. A new exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum traces Martin’s career from her lesser-known paintings of the 1950s to her final canvases of the early 2000s, challenging the viewer to mine the layers of meaning she ingrained into them with each brushstroke.
“There’s nothing that approximates the experience of seeing it in person,” says Guggenheim curator Tracey Bashkoff, who organized the retrospective—the most comprehensive ever mounted—with guest curator Tiffany Bell. “I especially love the paintings of the 1960s, and have really enjoyed having those here in person to see the detail and the concentration and the amount of the artist’s hand and personality that those works embody.”
Martin, who was born in Western Canada, decided to become a painter at age 30, when many of her female contemporaries in the 1940s would have settled into life as a housewife, raising a family. She finally settled in New York in 1957, after stints studying education in Washington, New York, and New Mexico, when dealer and artist Betty Parsons discovered her work.
It was there that she found herself socializing with a group of artists who included Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly, eventually aligning with the Abstract Expressionists, becoming close friends with Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. Though her work was more minimal in nature and did not contain the gestural brush strokes associated with artists of the AbEx movement, Martin was a kindred spirit. “She provides an important bridge between the Abstract Expressionists and the Minimalist painters who came after her,” says Bashkoff.
Martin left New York in 1967, dropping out of the art world, to be alone when her studio was scheduled to be demolished, to reflect on her rising fame, and perhaps also to battle the schizophrenia she struggled with throughout her life. When Martin resurfaced in the 1970s, the art world was waiting, and she had exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the ICA in Philadelphia.
My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.Agnes Martin
The Guggenheim survey includes about 100 works by Martin, filling the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda. There, some of Martin’s earlier works from the 1950s show her propensity for abstract shapes, before she moved on to her signature repetitive patterns, using grids, dots, and curves over and over again. When Martin remerged after her art-world hiatus, she eschewed oil, her previous paint of choice, for acrylic. Thick, airy pastel stripes filled the later canvases of her final decades.
“If you see one painting in a museum somewhere, and a year passes, and you see another painting somewhere else, you might not recall all those nuances and changes,” said Bashkoff. “But when you see this many paintings together, and you understand the whole arc of the career, you see these differences and subtleties, it enriches your understanding of the work and is really worth the effort.”
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