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Influential Abstract Painter Agnes Martin Dies at 92

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page B06

Agnes Martin, whose meticulous and meditative abstract paintings are among the most honored and influential artworks of recent decades, died of pneumonia Dec. 16 at a retirement community in Taos, N.M., where she had lived since 1991. She was 92.

Working daily in her studio, Ms. Martin -- a solitary, retiring soul who lived alone her entire adult life -- remained an active and accomplished artist, and her paintings often are shown in museums and galleries.

Agnes Martin, shown in 1997, was admired for purity of her artistic vision. Her paintings are prized by collectors. (Eric Draper -- AP)

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Ms. Martin was admired for the purity of her artistic vision and was considered a symbol of integrity in the materialistic, sometimes venal world of modern art.

In addition to her deceptively simple, gridlike paintings, she also wrote and spoke of the deep spiritual purpose of the artistic life, saying that an artist's goal is not to make political statements but to create lasting beauty.

"Artwork is a representation of our devotion to life," she wrote. "The enormous pitfall is devotion to oneself instead of to life. All works that are self-devoted are absolutely ineffective."

Ms. Martin was living in New York in the early 1940s when Jackson Pollock -- her contemporary -- and other artists created the stylistic revolution that came to be known as Abstract Expressionism. At first, she did not follow their path, preferring to work in a figurative vein. But it wasn't until she was well into her forties, and had abandoned traditional still-lifes and portraits for abstraction, that she gained wide notice.

After living in New Mexico for several years, she returned to New York in 1957, sharing a neighborhood -- as well as a general aesthetic -- with such renowned painters as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and Ellsworth Kelly. In the early 1960s, Ms. Martin pared down her art to a tight, orderly form of geometric abstraction, ingeniously arranging subtly shaded oil and acrylic paints on large, six-foot-square canvases.

The simplicity of her style departed from the drip-style paintings of Pollock and some other Abstract Expressionists, but Ms. Martin's horizontal lines of delicately shaded colors evoked a powerful response among viewers. As a result, even though she rejected the label, she became associated with the school of painting called Minimalism, with an emphasis on stark visual lines and muted emotions.

"Agnes Martin's work was minimally elegant and gives definition to those two words," said Earl A. Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art. "Her work was subdued, quiet, serene and contemplative. She made a huge contribution to postwar art."

Agnes Bernice Martin was born March 22, 1912, in Maklin, Saskatchewan. She came to the United States when she was 19, studying at what is now Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. She taught in high schools in Washington state, Delaware and New Mexico in the 1930s and '40s. She received bachelor's and master's degrees in art from Columbia University in New York, where she lived for extended periods from the 1940s through the 1960s.

She was always drawn to the open vistas of the west, however, and in 1967 left New York to tour the country in a pickup and camper. She stopped painting for seven years, in the meantime building an adobe house in New Mexico by hand.

When she began to paint again, she adopted a palette of muted shades of brown, beige, gray and white, sometimes warmed by soft washes of pink, orange or blue. The colors and titles, such as "Mountains," "Dark River," "Starlight" and "Leaf in the Wind," suggested the landscape and skies of her adopted New Mexico. They were not realistic depictions but rather subtle evocations of the sensations and emotional weight of the natural world.

Hilton Kramer, the often cranky critic and editor of the New Criterion, has described Ms. Martin's work as "like a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer."

If not widely known to the general public, her paintings are prized by collectors and are housed in many leading museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her full-sized paintings routinely sell for more than $1 million.

Ms. Martin led a life of solitude by choice. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment at her retirement community, with only one work of art on the walls: a poster by her friend and fellow New Mexico artist, Georgia O'Keeffe. She enjoyed classical music but did not own either a television or a stereo. Her sole indulgence was a white Mercedes-Benz.

She also disavowed politics and any connection with the feminist movement. In 1967, when she was honored by Harper's Bazaar as one of 100 "Women of Achievement," she came to the luncheon wearing moccasins and an unironed skirt and blouse.

In 1989, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and she received a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998.

In spite of her reclusive nature, she often spoke publicly about art, sometimes drawing on her own poetry and the aphoristic comments collected in a 1998 book, "Writings."

"When I think of art, I think of beauty," she wrote. "Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind."

She leaves no survivors.

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