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Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art

by Nancy Princenthal

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The first biography of visionary artist Agnes Martin, one of the most original and influential painters of the postwar period
Over the course of a career that spanned fifty years, Agnes Martin’s austere, serene work anticipated and helped to define Minimalism, even as she battled psychological crises and carved out a solitary existence in the American


The first biography of visionary artist Agnes Martin, one of the most original and influential painters of the postwar period
Over the course of a career that spanned fifty years, Agnes Martin’s austere, serene work anticipated and helped to define Minimalism, even as she battled psychological crises and carved out a solitary existence in the American Southwest. Martin identified with the Abstract Expressionists but her commitment to linear geometry caused her to be associated in turn with Minimalist, feminist, and even outsider artists. She moved through some of the liveliest art communities of her time while maintaining a legendary reserve. “I paint with my back to the world,” she says both at the beginning and at the conclusion of a documentary filmed when she was in her late eighties. When she died at ninety-two, in Taos, New Mexico, it is said she had not read a newspaper in half a century.
No substantial critical monograph exists on this acclaimed artist—the recipient of two career retrospectives as well as the National Medal of the Arts—who was championed by critics as diverse in their approaches as Lucy Lippard, Lawrence Alloway, and Rosalind Krauss. Furthermore, no attempt has been made to describe her extraordinary life. The whole engrossing story, told here for the first time, Agnes Martin is essential reading for anyone interested in abstract art or the history of women artists in America.

Editorial Reviews

“the first book of its kind....I can't think of a better time to read it.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Doggedly researched and gracefully written. . . . [Princenthal] shines in describing Martin's earthy good humor and dedication to her art and in capturing the atmosphere in which the artist came of age. It's the best life we have of this remarkable woman, and it will remain definitive for a long good while.”
“Prompts us to appreciate the world around us in a new way, no longer seeing clothing as a practical necessity, but as a statement of beauty and technical perfection.”
“Presents the artist as a woman in full. . .”
“The first full-length biography of Agnes Martin reveals a driven, conflicted artist. . . . Princenthal has done a heroic service in scouting the glut of sources—reviews, documentaries, interviews, previous publications—for the brightest quotations and strangest anomalies. She strings these together into an engaging narrative. . . . [Her] tone is assured and reassuring. . . . Princenthal’s book offers the frankest discussion to date of the artist’s diagnosis [of schizophrenia]. It examines the shifting perception and treatment of mental illness in the US during Martin’s lifetime, and also the rarity of her condition.”
Booklist/American Library Association
“In the first comprehensive Martin biography, art critic Princenthal combines facts with astute critical analysis to create a richly inquisitive, vividly written portrait in sync with Martin’s rigorous yet magnificently nuanced grid and stripe paintings. . . . Princenthal sensitively brings Martin forward as a strong, independent, courageous, thorny, self-mythologizing, funny, private, and generous artist of conviction and vision, who lived simply, attained wealth and fame, and experienced, at times, an 'ecstatic radiance' that will forever animate her paintings.”
“Princenthal’s style is underplayed—she, like her subject, never lends herself to theatricality. Also like Martin, Princenthal does a lot with very little. She smoothly transitions between art and life, lyricism and scholarship. . . . Martin is most famous for her minimal paintings, but Princenthal homes in on the lesser-known pockets of her career as well. Princenthal’s book is thoughtful enough to feel personal...her words are in service of Martin’s work and spirit.”
“Superbly researched . . . offers the first comprehensive biography of Martin as well as a critical examination of the unusual body of work she produced during a professional career that lasted half a century.”
New York Times Book Review
“Rewarding. . . . [Princenthal] scrutinizes some two dozen works, tracks critical responses to Martin’s art, and unpacks the artist’s philosophical and religious sources. Fending off clichés about madness and creativity, Princenthal draws a careful distinction between the schizophrenic’s aural hallucinations and the artist’s visions.”
Kirkus Reviews
Writing a biography of Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is a study in frustration, but former Art in America senior editor Princenthal (School of the Visual Arts; Hannah Wilke, 2010, etc.) manages to piece together a story while getting beyond her subject's well-guarded privacy. Martin was born in rural Saskatchewan and bounced between the coasts as student and teacher, building the disciplinarian aspect of her character. Eventually, she spent 40 years on and off in Taos, New Mexico, punctuated by forays to New York. Throughout her life, she sought time to be alone, whether traveling or living on a lonely mesa outside of Santa Fe. When she began giving talks about art, she refused to speak to or meet any of the audience members. However, she wasn't asocial; she had many artist friends when she lived in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan. Among her influences were Zen Buddhism and Rothko, Cage and Klee. A contemporary of the abstract expressionists, Martin's work was much more minimalist. When she finally stopped destroying her work, she settled on rectilinear grids on square canvases; she sought to upset the power of the square. She suffered a lifelong battle with schizophrenic paranoia, and she hoped to bring out what she felt were the only true feelings: happiness and helplessness. The author readily acknowledges that Martin is unknowable, citing contradictory biographical material from the artist. Martin prohibited catalogs for her exhibitions and swore her friends to secrecy regarding her life. She feared the deception of words. Princenthal carefully describes the artist's works, but there is no way to appreciate her without seeing the originals; illustrations don't fully convey the feeling in her work. The author's deep research and personal correspondence with the artist will be enlightening to fans of Martin and will encourage others to seek out her work.

Product Details

Thames & Hudson
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Product dimensions:
6.70(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.40(d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Princenthal has been writing about contemporary art for more than twenty-five years and was a senior editor at Art in America for five years. She has also written for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Artforum, and Bookforum.

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