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Martin and Other Treasures at Dia: Beacon

Critics love Agnes Martin for her clarity of vision and probably for her manner, too. The singular and solitary Canadian-born painter came to prominence in New York City with people like  Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg in the late 1950s.

   They all lived and   worked in dodgy lofts and studios near Wall Street, convening now and then on a tenement roof, Martin in a quilted jacket she seemed to wear indoors and out, sitting a little apart from the rest.

   A few years later, Martin gave away everything she had ­— her budding acclaim, her paints, her brushes — and drove west in a pickup truck settling in New Mexico where she lived alone and sparely in an adobe house she built with her own hands.

   She did not paint for seven years. But when she set up her canvasses again, dressing them with two coats of gouache, covering the whole with a tight grid of pencil lines drawn by hand using a straightedge and then laying down horizontal bands in muted and uneven pigments against a paler ground, the critics and the collectors were ready. These powerful and meticulous paintings have been auctioned for  multi-millions of dollars.

   Dia: Beacon is exhibiting 20 of Martin’s sublime paintings. Some date back to the years when she was young and strong enough to hoist 36-square-foot canvasses so that she could paint the horizontal acrylic stripes vertically, avoiding drips. More recent paintings are just 25 square feet, still large enough, as she said, for a viewer  “to step into.â€

   She spent the rest of her life alone, reading no newspapers, watching no TV,  rejecting such theories as evolution and atomic energy, and painting every morning, finally in a retirement home in New Mexico. Her only extravagance was a white Mercedes. Otherwise, she lived simply, waiting for inspiration and trying not to get in its way. She died in 2004 at age 92.   

Dia: Beacon’s Riggio Galleries are at 3 Beekman St., Beacon, NY. The museum, once a Nabisco box-making factory with white walls and silvery natural light, houses works by Michael Heizer, Andy Warhol, Blinky Palermo, On Kawara, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and others. To see Heizer’s enormous craters, call the museum at 845-440-0100 to join a small escorted group circling the scary and compelling excavations in the museum floor. For information, go to  www.diaart.org.

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