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Agnes Martin, 92; Abstract Painter Won the Golden Lion

December 17, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Martin returned to New York in 1957 and took a studio at Coenties Slip, a two-block stretch of artists' lofts near South Ferry. Her now celebrated, but then largely unheralded, neighbors included Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist, although she was not known to socialize much. Martin's organic, vaguely Surrealist abstractions from New Mexico slowly gave way to variations on the grid format.

Her first New York show was at the legendary Betty Parsons Gallery in 1958. Parsons had visited Martin's studio in Taos the year before, during a sojourn to see the British expatriate artist Dorothy Brett, who had immigrated to New Mexico with Frieda and D.H. Lawrence. The dealer bought five paintings and offered gallery representation if Martin would move to New York. The sales provided the impoverished artist with money necessary for the move, and Kelly, who was also represented by Parsons, helped Martin find studio space.

By 1960, Martin had settled on the type of work she would pursue for the next four decades, superimposing tremulous pencil lines and carefully applied washes of color. Her first solo exhibition in Los Angeles was held in 1965 at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, where she showed again five years later.

Her work, however, was not pursued without interruption. Coenties Slip was slated for demolition in 1967. Martin packed her things into a pickup truck and camper and spent the next year and a half traveling the Western United States and Canada. Writing replaced painting.

After returning to New Mexico, she spent the rest of her life working there -- first in the small village of Cuba, then in Galisteo from 1977 to 1992, and finally in Taos. Her first major retrospective was organized at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art in 1973, and its only other venue was the Pasadena Museum of Art (now the Norton Simon Museum). Her first European retrospective was organized by London's Hayward Gallery four years later, and New York's Whitney Museum of American Art mounted one in 1992.

The exhibition "In Pursuit of Perfection: The Art of Agnes Martin, Maria Martinez and Florence Pierce" is at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe through Jan. 23. It joins examples of Martin's abstract grids with the famous black-on-black ceramic vessels of Martinez (1887-1980) and fiberglass and resin panels by Pierce.

In addition to Venice's Golden Lion, Martin was awarded prizes by the German and Austrian governments for her contributions to painting. In 1998, she received the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts.

She is survived by a grandnephew, Derrick Martin.

At Martin's request, no formal service or memorial is planned.

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