In 1994, I visited Agnes Martin at her residence in Taos, New Mexico. As a major figure in contemporary art, I expected her to live in splendor. Instead, I found her to be living what appeared to be a marginal lifestyle. She lived in an ordinary one-bedroom apartment in a humble retirement village.
As my eyes scanned her walls, I figured that I might, at least, see one of her wonderful paintings, but the only picture she had hanging was a Georgia O'Keeffe. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be a Georgia O'Keeffe poster. The irony was that Martin was wealthy enough to afford a whole roomful of O'Keeffe paintings.
Perplexed by her surroundings, I gently asked her what she spent her money on. Martin replied that she allowed herself only one luxury -- a new white BMW. I smiled, still wondering how she spent the rest of it. At that point, the discussion became more interesting. Martin elaborated on her original answer by mentioning that her dealer, Arne Glimcher, set up a fund to purchase works by Abstract Expressionist artists.
The purchased paintings were then donated to museums. She felt this was her way of being supportive of the art she grew up with during her formative years. She then mentioned that the money was given anonymously. It is that same generosity of spirit that permeates Martin's work. Perhaps that's what makes the work so special.
In order to fully comprehend Martin's art, it's necessary to visit New Mexico. She moved there in 1973 and has worked there ever since. Martin's studio is located in the middle of the high desert, surrounded by magnificent red sandstone cliffs. Her late paintings, some painted in thin ethereal washes of earthen red and wispy sky blue, are based on spiritual feelings derived from the landscape. Those paintings that emphasize the color white are heavily influenced by the elusive desert light.
Last season, Martin shattered her previous record at auction of $525,000 for the painting, The Tree (Sotheby's, May 1996). At Phillips' May 2000 sale, her painting Drift of Summer went over its estimate of $800,000-$1 million to sell for $1.4 million. During the same month at Sotheby's, a work on paper that held the record for a Martin drawing, The Shell, came on the auction block a second time. The first time around, The Shell sold for what was then a record, $60,250 (Sotheby's May 1996). This time, it went for $214,750.
Clearly, the Agnes Martin market is on the rise. Several factors are at work here. One is that the demand for key works of Minimalism has never been stronger. Recently, records have been set for Brice Marden and Donald Judd. The competition for great works by Carl Andre and Robert Ryman has also been keen.
Another factor is that collectors have finally caught up to Agnes Martin. Her work was always the most subtle of her peer group -- even more so than Ryman's all-white paintings. As collectors have grown more sophisticated, they have become more responsive to Martin's vision.
The final factor is that Martin has probably produced the smallest body of work among the major Minimalist painters. As she approaches the age of 90, she has predictably slowed down and produced even less.
Given the current momentum in Agnes Martin's market, her advanced age, and the almost universal praise of her work, this appears to be a market with no downside.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.