Book review: Agnes Martin

This first – and much-needed – biography of American abstract painter Agnes Martin is as much a scholarly, thoroughly researched art history book as it is an accessible and fascinating story. For Martin, the personal and professional seem to have been inseparable, and this is reflected here: this beautifully produced book traces Martin’s personal life alongside her development as a professional artist

In the case of Martin’s early work, this duality is particularly important, because Martin destroyed much of her art, and what remains from this period, especially, is strictly fragmentary: a description by a contemporary here, the odd surviving painting there. Princenthal’s decision to discuss this early period primarily in the context of Martin’s personal history instead of her art allows the reader to make sense of this.

This work effectively pieces together, through surviving works, evocative descriptions of places and communities, and acquaintances’ reminiscences, a life acknowledged to have been full of lacunae. Martin herself was prone to giving conflicting versions of events. Nancy Princenthal reports these without, profitably, seeking any “true” biographical line through a complex career.

Originally written for Aesthetica.

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