The Life and Cremation of Superstar Artist Agnes Martin

Posted on March 23, 2018 by Martin Oaks under Community, Cremation, Memorial
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One of America’s greatest artists, Agnes Martin, who was born this month in 1912, marched to a different drummer during her life — a drummer that she could not always control.

Even in death, she passed away and was cremated in 2004, Martin’s fate was determined, at least to some extent, by others.

We here at Martin Oaks Cemetery & Crematory, located just up the road from Dallas, Texas in the suburb of Lewisville, Texas, have never quite heard of scattering of cremains such as what apparently happened to those of Agnes Martin.

But first let’s talk about her career.

Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Martin grew up in Vancouver.  Her home environment, particularly her relationship with her mother, was severe. At the age of 20, she moved to the United States and eventually earned a Master’s Degree from Columbia.

Between periods of teaching, she practiced her craft — ruthlessly destroying works that did not meet her impossibly demanding standards. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-forties that she made the commitment to become an artist.

Finally settling in New York, she had her first show in the late 1950’s — at this time, she was producing hugely understated works that were geometric abstractions.  Minimally prepared canvases that featured large grids — this was her reductive niche in the art world.

These ambiguous creations packed an emotional punch that was at odds with the subtle, serene nature of the work itself.

It was around this time that she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. This illness plagued her with visual and auditory hallucinations; at times, it was so disabling that Martin had to be hospitalized.  A friend remembers a time that she passed him on the street and did not recognize him.  There were periods in which Martin did not know who she was nor have a clue about what her occupation was.

This culminated with her deserting the New York art scene in 1967, traveling about in an Airstream for 18 months until she wound up in Cuba, New Mexico.

In the early 70’s, Martin embraced art again — but now she began working with colored strips.  Again, the subtle style, obsessive execution and depth of meaning emerged. For a period, she worked with gray canvases until color reappeared.

The size of her work assumed a different scale: as she aged, she could not produce the six foot pieces of prior years, so the paintings became smaller.

Later, the bold geometric forms were reintroduced; all the while her sales and exhibitions continued.

Medals, awards, and commendations began pouring in: Martin’s work achieved consensus approval that signaled her acceptance as one of the century’s major figures in American art.

To achieve this, she had struggled through the absolute depths of mental illness; overcoming an emotional abusive childhood, as well as the deprivations any artist must deal with as they build a career (she was never material, lived at times in homes she built herself — she was sometimes snowed in for weeks at a time), Agnes Martin’s life is a testament to will and talent.

In 1992, she moved into a retirement community and finally made one concession to luxury — she drove a BMW from that community to her studio.  Martin completed her last work (a three inch drawing of a plant) not long before she passed away.

Following cremation, Agnes Martin’s final chapter was also tinged with irony.  She had wanted her ashes to be scattered on the grounds of the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico.  Since state law prohibited this, it is said that friends of hers, under a full moon at midnight, scattered the cremains near an apricot tree on the museum grounds — this story may or may not be true.

What is true is that Agnes Martin’s work will illuminate our lives in a way that few artists have been able to: she will continue to be a presence in our lives long after her passing.


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