Agnes Martin – Sylphide Muses

Walking through the Agnes Martin retrospective at Tate Modern brings to mind Rosalind Krauss’s essay – ‘Grids’ the first of her essays in the collection, ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths’. The essay is based around Krauss’s observation that the grid has become the emblem of modern art, representing ‘modern art’s will to silence’1 and its hostility to literature. Using structuralist terminology, she describes the grid as a ‘myth’, masking a repetitive trauma or neurosis stemming from modernity’s failure to reconcile the secular and scientific with the spiritual. Agnes Martin’s paintings are surely the most iconic modernist grid paintings besides Mondrian. However, beneath the myth lies the ideas behind these paintings which are rich and offer insight into a remarkable artist’s view of the world. She seemingly strives for spiritual peace in an increasingly mechanised, modern world.

The most interesting room contains a set of paintings made in the mid-sixties when Martin was a successful member of New York’s artists’ community: Adventure (1967), Morning (1965), White Stone (1964), The Rose (1965), The Tree (1964) and Grass (1967). The paintings in this room demonstrate the range of carefully tuned appearances Martin was able to achieve through: contrasts between her pencil lines and slightly uneven backgrounds, the density of the grids and the resulting arrangements of space. Many of her paintings are untitled with numbers but all these have titles providing some reference. The titles provide a suggestion of the intent and each painting is characteristic of its title, but Martin’s choice not to title most paintings is one means by which she fall foul of Krauss’s criticism of modernism’s purge of objective references.

Morning 1965 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 Purchased 1974
Morning 1965 Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin was strongly influenced by ideas stemming from East Asian philosophy and religion, particularly Taoism which she was introduced to at Columbia College, New York, where she studied teaching. Her work involves an intuitive approach, frequently referring to “Inspiration”:

“There are two parts of the mind: The outer mind that records and the inner mind that says ‘yes’ and ‘no’. When you think of something that you should do, the inner mind says ‘yes’ and you feel elated. We call this inspiration. For an artist this is the only way. There is no help anywhere. He must listen to his own mind”.2

This intuitive approach has similarities to Andy Warhol’s methods for producing his work in New York at the same time as Martin, which he describes:

“I look at my canvas and I space it out right. I think, “Well, over here in this corner it looks like it sort of belongs,” and so I say, “Oh yes, that’s where it belongs, all right.” So I look at it again and I say, “The space in that corner there needs a little blue,” and so I put my blue up there and then, then I look over there and it looks blue over there so I take my brush…”3

Another similarity is the use of repetition which the two artists were incorporating. Martin knew Warhol and said of him, perhaps summing up the difference between the two: “I liked Warhol but I was afraid of his friends”.

Both artists were interested in emptiness, a concept important in East Asian ideas.

Martin: “The empty form goes all the way to heaven”4

Warhol: “If I see a chair in a beautiful space, no matter how beautiful the chair is, it can never be as beautiful to me as the plain space.”5

Despite the stylistic differences in their work, both artists shared interests. Perhaps more than Martin shared with the Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists with whom she was closely associated.

In spite of her incorporation of squares and the visual simplicity of her paintings, Agnes Martin’s inspiration for her paintings was different to the minimalists. She has said she was inspired to start using the grid in her paintings after going on a walk in the mountains and emerging on the wide open plains. The horizontal line, to her represented freedom and expansion: “Happiness is being on the beam with life – to feel the pull of life”5.

She said that she inserted the rectangles within squares in order to counteract the power and dominant strength of the square. This is in contrast to minimalists such as Carl Andre who employed the square as an imposing and powerful form. Her desire to create softer, quieter paintings points to the Taoist philosophies that Martin was interested in. The soft, weak and tranquil (eg.water) are perceived as more powerful than the hard and tough. Better to be a grain of sand than a rock. It’s these ideas that the paintings evoke. There may be no narrative but the paintings’ are not purely formal. They evoke calm and tranquility as beautifully as any poem or book.


1 ‘The Grid’. From ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths’, Rosalind E. Krauss, 1986

2 & 4 ‘Beauty is the Mystery of Life’, Agnes Martin, 1989

3 ‘The Untroubled Mind’, Agnes Martin, 1972

3 & 5 ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’ 1975,

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