After Martin packed up and left New York in 1967—disappearing for several months just when her career was gaining momentum—she turned up in the New Mexico desert and began an ascetic life in an adobe hut on a mesa, with no electricity. It is here that she hit her stride, largely dissolving the grid and opening up her compositions with pale, watery stripes. If Martin was an Abstract Expressionist, Morris has noted, it was visible in the minute irregularities that she allowed to surface (in Untitled #2, from 2000, a few tiny droplets of peach-colored paint have fallen on a band of mottled sky-blue, evoking the movement of the artist’s arm across the canvas, wet brush in hand), in the gesture with which she painted within the strict confines of her gridded or striped canvases, and in the overarching subject matter—emotion.
Martin penned names for her works that spill into sentimentality, to almost comic effect when paired with her spare and restrained canvases. I Love the Whole World (2000) is a cool 5-by-5-foot composition of white and gray-blue horizontals that belies its effusive title. But her paintings don’t reward this surface reading. In fact, they present a challenge in a museum setting, where viewers must contend with crowds and their own short attention spans. The pieces mysteries lie deep within them and, rather like Martin herself, the viewer must go looking for them. Spend 10 or 15 minutes with “The Islands I–XII” (1979), a series of pristine white squares intersected with pencil lines or bands of faint gray, and their subtle nuances and depths reveal themselves slowly. Notes of duck-egg, bone, and pale sage emerge and recede; fine graphic horizon lines start to pulsate; and the works become magnetic fields of light and motion.