Discovering Agnes Martin's Artistic Roots

02/21/2012 03:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2012

TAOS, N.M. — A Taos museum is about to open an exhibit by an abstract painter who was a quiet fixture of the local community but who was well-known in the art world for her seemingly simple and muted grid paintings.

"Agnes Martin: Before the Grid" opens Feb. 25 at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. Martin, who died in 2004 at age 92, would have celebrated her 100th birthday in March.

Each of her paintings is a unique exercise in perfect scale and proportion. The show at the Harwood is the first large posthumous exhibit of her work and the only one to highlight such an extensive collection of paintings and drawings that predate the grids that made her famous.

It took a small team of curators about two years to unravel the mystery of her artistic beginnings. Playing detective, curators read through Martin's letters, looked through film negatives, and searched public and private art collections. Because Taos artists often give some of their works to local schools, curators also approached the school district, and were able to find some of her work in a storage closet at a high school.

The rare pieces they uncovered in their various hunts are part of the show.

The hope is that the 30-plus oil portraits, watercolor landscapes and abstractions inspired by contemporaries like painter Mark Rothko will give visitors a better understanding of the evolution behind Martin's style.

"You'll be able to go upstairs and downstairs and you'll wind your way through her mind. You'll walk around the room and see her mind at work," said curator Jina Brenneman.

"You'll see how she actually came to arrive here," Brenneman said, referring to "The Spring," the show's benchmark piece. "She was a gallery goer, she was a museum goer. She had a strong visual memory so she really, really was watching what was going on around her. She wasn't just isolated in her adobe creating grid work. She was looking."

An educator at first, Martin painted for about two decades before her art became dominated by the elements of abstract expression – biomorphic shapes and gestural marks. She had her first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1958.

By the early 1960s, Martin was all about the penciled lines and square formats. Art critic and historian Richard Tobin of Santa Fe credited her with bringing together abstraction's divergent streams during the 20th century.

Born in Canada, Martin moved to the U.S. as a young woman. She spent the summer of 1947 enrolled in the UNM Field School in Taos, and lived in Taos on and off between 1953 and 1957, according to the museum, then moved to New York. She returned to New Mexico in 1968 and to Taos in 1993.

She was a quiet fixture of Taos until her death. Modest and reclusive, she threw her support behind a community swimming pool, a skateboard park and other programs for children. She spent time sitting in the Harwood's galleries and she liked drinking martinis at Doc Martin's Restaurant along the main street. For Martin's centennial, the restaurant will be offering a special martini in her honor.

In the museum's storage room, Brenneman pushed apart the racks of artwork waiting to be installed. She pointed to Martin's pieces and talked about the similarities to works by artists such as Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Adolph Gottlieb.

Other Martin paintings – such as the New Mexico landscapes she painted in 1947 – were beautiful but unrecognizable as Martins.

Martin wasn't particularly happy with the early work. Historians contend she destroyed more than 100 of her early pieces and tried to reclaim as many as she could from friends, relatives and collectors so she could dispose of them as well.

"She did a great disservice to herself," Tobin said. "I think everyone has a theory why she did it. The most current one is that she was trying to shape her legacy, which is a normal human thing."

Therein lies the controversy with the exhibition. Had Martin still been living, the show likely would not have happened.

"She would have been furious because she mythologized herself and she did it on purpose," Brenneman said. "We're close enough to Agnes' life that we can avoid and correct myth. I think demythologizing her is going to, in the long run, be much better for her in an art historical perspective. This makes her so much more vital."

The museum got the blessing of some of her closest friends to go ahead with the exhibition.

Brenneman said the exhibit had to be done in Taos, a mountain community that has long been a mecca for internationally known artists and authors.

"It was her home. This was a place where she decided to live and die," Brenneman said. "Visitors can come and see the town that she chose to live in, and the people she was around are still around. They'll be able to see what kind of life she lived."

In addition to Martin's drawings and paintings, handwritten notes, negative strips and scrap books filled with Polaroid snap shots and other items will be on display. A series of lectures is also planned, with the hope of providing a more personal view of Martin.

"This whole show, in a way, is about reevaluating her," said Lucy Perera, who knew Martin and works as the Harwood's curator of education. "This show is going to be a challenge for people."


If You Go...

HARWOOD MUSEUM OF ART: 238 Ledoux St., Taos; or 575-758-9826. "Agnes Martin: Before the Grid," through June 17, 2012. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday, Noon-4 p.m. March through October, open Mondays and until 5 p.m. Adults, $10, seniors $8, students $8, children under 12 free.


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