Mapping the Mesa

Dr. Victoria King

On a visit to Taos in July 2002 two years before her death, I discussed with Agnes Martin the fact that her paintings are often viewed as contemplative objects. She acknowledged that her intense focus and state of concentration during their making might perhaps cause a comparable response in viewers. She hoped that people would take “at least a minute” in front of her canvases. Many beholders of her work as well as art critics do take the time, and with few exceptions, only positive, glowing reviews appeared over the many years of her remarkable career. In 1992, Rosalind Krauss wrote that Kasha Linville’s 1971 phenomenological reading of Martin’s paintings was the only critical discourse to exist on her work (Krauss: 1992: 158). Linville noted three distances within Martin’s paintings, one being a close-up reading, then moving back into an “atmosphere”, and a third where the work becomes objectified and “immovable as stone (Linville: 1971: 73). Krauss recognized that phenomenology had come to be the dominant discourse for modernist painting: "[A]t the beginning of the century, modernist painting opened up, within an ever growing dependence of the work on the phenomenology of seeing (and thus on the subject), what we could call an “objectivist opticality,” namely, an attempt to discover – the level of pure abstraction – the objective conditions, or the logical grounds of possibility, for the purely subjective phenomenon of vision itself" (Krauss: 1992: 164).


In many of Martin’s paintings, the interaction of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ through her repetition of parallel linear gestures upon the ground of the canvas creates a shimmer. Annette Michelson described this shimmer as a “visual tremolo” (Michelson: 1967: 46). Lawrence Alloway noted that Martin’s grids created “a single undifferentiated tremor of form, or a plateau of non-form, across the whole surface" (Alloway: 1973: 34). To Rosalind Krauss and Marcia Tucker, the surfaces that underlay her grids and lines seemed more like “luminous containers for the shimmer of line” than material objects (Krauss and Tucker in Haskell: 1992: 106). Dore Ashton once remarked that the surfaces of Martin’s paintings are “surprisingly thin, allowing gessoed grounds full right to radiate interior light" (Ashton: 1977: 12). An atmosphere of light permeates all Martin’s paintings and some writers believe that her work transforms the signifier of light into material pigment and canvas (Linville: 1971; Krauss: 1992). Francine Prose noted that “the cool strips that float across the surface of her paintings appear to capture light and shine it back at us, transforming it in the process, so that we feel we are learning something new and significant about the nature of light" (Prose: 1999: 142).

The placement of Martin’s work into the category of the Abstract Sublime has been due in no small part to the encompassing effect of its shimmer. Carter Ratcliff quoted Edmund Burke to describe the “gradual variation” within Martin’s paintings: a variation “[whose parts] vary their direction every moment, chang[ing] under the eye by a deviation continually carrying on,” producing disparate forms ultimately unified or “melted as it were into each other” (Burke in Ratcliff: 1973: 26). Ratcliff also noted how her paintings “evoke phenomena so vast or elusive as to be unnameable, and seem to shift from external to internal states" (Ratcliff: 1973: 27). Many people have experienced such a shift in front of Martin’s paintings. Mesmerized by the often literally ‘stunning’ shimmer of the work, artist and beholder collude in losing themselves in the sublime. But it is the boundless and limitless aspects of the sublime that her work has been most frequently associated with rather than the affiliations of the sublime with engulfment. Yet the surfaces of Martin’s paintings sometimes seduce, envelop, and overwhelm the sensitive viewer and produce a sense of engulfment. Kasha Linville noted that “Once you are caught in one of her paintings, it is an almost painful effort to pull back from the private experience she triggers to examine the way the picture is made. The desire to simply let yourself flow through it, or let it flow through you, is much stronger” (Linville: 1971: 72). This resonates with Edmund Burke’s 1757 definition in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful of the sublime as “tranquility tinged with terror” where he associated it with terms such as “Vacuity, Solitude, Silence and Infinity” (Burke in Fuller: 1988: 188; Casey: 2002: 40-46).

Martin utilized an ‘all-over’ handling of paint that creates a haptic diffusion of surface. In 1967, Michael Fried wrote in his essay ‘Art and objecthood’ that surface ‘tactility’ had become an important means to an end within modern painterly expression (Fried, 1967: 2000). In the closing line of his influential article, he emphasized that “Presentness is grace" (ibid.: 832). In 1972, he wrote that in the most ambitious modernist paintings, “every grain or particle or atom of surface competes for presentness with every other" (Fried: 1972: 50, emphasis in original). In 1948 in ‘The Crisis of the Easel Picture’, Clement Greenberg stated that the new “uniformity” of picture surfaces was “antiaesthetic”. He maintained that “This very uniformity, the dissolution of the pictorial into sheer texture, into apparently sheer sensation, into an accumulation of repetitions, seems to speak for and answer to something profound in contemporary sensibility" (Greenberg: 1986: 224).

For Fried, issues of ‘picture-surface’ emerged from the previous disposition of modernist painters to leave much of the bare canvas ground visible, resulting in what he saw as “the authority of the canvas giving out, becoming depleted, right before our eyes" (Fried: 1972: 50). A similar recognition of depletion came from art critic Peter Fuller. He used the theological term of kenosis, self-emptying, to describe the modernist’s “self-reduction towards blankness” (Fuller: 1988: 215). He related this to a historical moment that recurred in cosmological, theological, mystical, and psychological writings from about 1910 onwards. Fuller believed that this “blankness’ represented a ‘literal wiping clean of the slate of consciousness given the realisation that the structuring of the 19th century world view was wrong" (ibid.). With this new beginning also came doubt, anxiety and a longing for the sublime.

An Intense Beauty

The paintings of Agnes Martin exemplify the dissolution into sensation that Clement Greenberg described and the self-emptying to which Peter Fuller referred. Her horizontal and vertical lines and limited colour focus the viewer’s attention before their shimmer allows one’s focus to dissolve. Yet her writings express a strong underlying content to her work. She frequently repeated that her paintings are “really about the feeling of beauty and freedom that you experience in landscape. I would say that my response to nature is really a response to beauty" (Martin in Sandler: 1993: 13). Her immersion in nature’s beauty has often been extreme. In 1976, she completed a small-budget movie that she called Gabriel. It slowly followed the movements of a young boy through landscapes that silently echoed her paintings. She said of the film: “It’s about a little boy that climbed a mountain and all the beautiful things he saw. Gabriel was an angel. The little boy wasn’t one, but he looked like one. The film was about climbing a mountain (Martin in Lance: 2003: documentary film).” Before she shot the footage of the child, she spent five months photographing the landscape and nature, and revealed that this made her feel immensely “happy” (ibid.). She believed the best image in the film was the opening and closing scene of waves going “over and over a rock”; it was, she said, a “good recording of time” (ibid.). In a catalogue essay on Martin’s work entitled ‘The/Cloud/’, Rosalind Krauss wrote that Gabriel constructed a reading of Martin’s work as “crypto-landscape”: “The terrain of the work, in both film and painting, it seems to say, is that of the abstract sublime, behind which, underwriting it as its field of relevance, is the immensity, the endlessness, the ecstasy, the terribilita of nature” (Krauss: 1992: 156). Krauss argued that Gabriel exemplified the internal inconsistency within Martin’s work: the clash between overt allusions to nature and the sublime, and her desire for her work to be read as ‘classical’ abstraction (ibid.: 158).

In 1976, Martin was emphatic that Gabriel was “about happiness – exact [same] thing with my paintings. It’s about happiness and innocence" (Martin in Gruen: 1976: 94). In an otherwise favourable article on Martin’s life and work, art critic Holland Cotter admitted that he found Gabriel “vaguely irritating” and that the “labor-intensive effort” in all her work contained an “air of quiet but concentrated obsessiveness" (Cotter: 1993: 90). This intensity is revealed in an anecdote that Martin told to Ann Wilson in 1998 about the making of the film. Martin described how she had no problem carrying heavy camera equipment, “but when she began to shoot the wild flowers up close, her hands would begin this terrible shaking, and she couldn’t figure out why or what was happening. Finally her voices told her that she was trembling for joy because of the beautiful flowers" (A. Wilson: 1998: 28). Martin was extremely sensitive to the intensity of nature’s beauty even in its minutiae. She wrote in 1972 that she could see beauty in a grain of dust (Martin: 1991: 16).

References to Martin hearing voices reappeared throughout Wilson’s interview. “She said her voices tell her not to own property and to keep cutting back. The first thing she got rid of was obsessive thinking. Then she dropped the things that she did not like about herself. It figures. You keep cutting back until there is nothing there" (A. Wilson: 1998: 27). The severity of Martin’s cutting back can be seen in the austerity of her life and the emptiness of her paintings. Yet mention of her voices struck me. In 1976, she said, “[I]f it doesn’t come into my mind what to do, then we just cannot proceed" (Martin in Gruen: 1976: 93). In that same interview, she said that during her departure from New York and her travels over the subsequent year and a half she sought inspiration and guidance for where to go next. “I never move without a sort of command from my mind" (ibid.). Hearing voices. Land-based indigenous cultures highly value shamanic visions, and it is a common theme in many religions to respect and abide by the messages of divine voices. But in Martin’s contemporary secular culture people rarely admit to hearing voices. The line is often precariously indistinct between knowledge given by inner voices or intuition and emotional fragility.

Stillness and Urgency

In a 1976 lecture that Martin gave at Yale entitled ‘What is Real’, she implored young artists to “pursue truth relentlessly” (Martin, 1976: 1991: 93). She said in 1989 that: “There is so much written about art that it is mistaken for an intellectual pursuit… Our emotional life is really dominant over our intellectual life but we do not realize it" (Martin, 1989: 1991: 154). The 1972 journal entry below revealed her meditative process of reflection as well as a sense of urgency (Martin, 1972: 1991: 35):

I am constantly tempted to think that I can help save myself

By looking into my mind I can see what’s there

By bringing thoughts to the surface of my mind I can watch

Them dissolve

I can see my ego and see its intentions

I can see that it is the same as all nature

I can see that it is myself and impotent like all nature

Impotent in the process of dissolution of ego, of itself

I can see that its main intention is the conquest and destruction

Of ego, of self

And can only go back and forth in constant battle with itself

Repeating itself…

This passage of writing is a powerful revelation of both Martin’s contemplative nature and her inner struggle to “save” herself. Her description of being witness to her thoughts in “constant battle” and the impotence of an unrelenting ego articulates the continual struggle that exists within human consciousness. Yet most people simply seek more and more distractions. Her apparent aim of ego-lessness has noticeably set her apart from most of her peers. Anna Chave noted that “The ‘extreme degree’ of Martin’s engagement in her moral and spiritual quest – for truth and beauty, joy and serenity, humility and the concomitant defeat of the ego or pride – would distinguish her, then, from those with whom she otherwise had much in common" (Chave: 1992: 136). The urgency behind Martin’s quest might point to the fact that her path was an absolute necessity for her. She said in 1972 that “Many artists live socially without disturbance to the mind, but others must live the inner experiences of mind, a solitary way of living" (Martin, 1972: 1991: 32).

‘With My Back to the World’

Through the classical abstraction that she embraced, Martin strove for a perfection that she recognized was not possible in the world. In 1972, she wrote the following (Martin, 1972: 1991: 37):

Classicists are people that look out with their back to the world

It represents something that isn’t possible in the world

More perfection than is possible in the world

It’s as unsubjective as possible.

In 1997, after painting untitled works for two decades, Martin titled six sixty-inch square canvases ‘With My Back to the World’. She made another reference to these words in 1999: “The cause for my painting is not in this world. I paint with my back to the world. This is how it is. You wake up in the morning and feel happy and that’s what I paint. I don’t see the dark side. I don’t pay attention to it. I don’t have no time for badness. I live a simple life. I sleep. Get up. Work. Sleep. Get up. Work" (Martin in Kusel: 1999: 61).

Martin’s determination not to see ‘the dark side’ and keep her back to the world is revealing. Such an obsessive pursuit of happiness is an anomaly. In a world filled with suffering, the denial of suffering and a concentration on its light-filled opposite speaks of an intense determination not to see, not to feel. The strength of her determination to not integrate more difficult and complex aspects of life is a fierce denial of reality. Birth, sickness, sorrow, grief, despair, aging, and death are part of the human condition. Even modern physics recognizes the constant flux and impermanence of all life, and in this, many people have found increasing resonances and parallels between science and ancient mystical and spiritual teachings. But Agnes Martin appears to have an extreme need to control her experience of the world which she again confirmed in an interview in 2001: “I don’t paint the darker side. I stay above the line. Above the line is love and happiness. Below the line is everything depressive, everything destructive and wrong. I paint above the line and I live above the line" (Martin in Spranger: 2001: 23).

In a 2003 documentary film on her life and work, she continued on this theme: “Suffering means that you’ve chosen the negative. Life gives you choices… Only the positive choices count. I stay level and never go down below the line. Above the line is happiness and comfort. Below the line is all kinds of depression and unpleasant thoughts" (Martin in Lance: 2003: documentary film). This extreme focus on happiness and repression of psychological pain parallels her single-minded search for perfection. Martin’s art and life were characterized by an intense need for control. She had a precise daily routine and timetable. Her “one meal a day” was her one daily “brush with society” (Martin: July 2002: personal interview). She said in 1976 that that she did not get out of bed until she can ‘see’ a painting in her mind’s eye: “I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three in the afternoon, without any breakfast. You see, I have a visual image. But then to accurately put it down, is a long, long ways from just knowing what you’re going to do" (Martin in Gruen: 1976: 94).

Martin’s compulsive concentration on the activity of painting goes beyond professionalism or self-discipline. I believe that it reveals a chasm of emptiness within her life, and that her inexorably relentless hand-drawn lines are an attempt to fill a traumatic ‘gap’. Martin’s rigid determination not to incorporate the shadow side of life has resulted in an art practice characterized by obsessive linear repetition. Her lines etch across the surface of vulnerabilities and old wounds; tracks that attempt to bridge the gap of trauma without confronting it. Art historian Susan Best called upon Freud’s concept of sublimation in looking at the ‘problem’ of aesthetic pleasure: “[A]rt serves first the artist, and then by proxy the viewer, as a substitute for wishes and pleasures foregone or forbidden. It is thus a shared cultural consolation for giving up the more primary pleasures of the self" (Best: 2002: 208). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud recounted how he witnessed his patients being obliged to repeat the repressed event rather than making themselves vulnerable to the ‘displeasure’ of remembering it as something belonging to the past (Freud: 1989: 19).

Absence and Movement

Places deeply enter our psyches at a very young age[1]. Agnes Martin was born in 1912 in Maklin, Saskatchewan, Canada, amongset flat plains and open vistas filled with fields of summer grains and delicate wild flowers. Her father was a wheat farmer and at an early age undulating fields of tall shimmering grasses would have filled her peripheral vision. In 1914, when she was only two years old, her father died, an event that perhaps further imprinted this landscape upon her. She said: “My father died and we left Saskatchewan when I was, I think I was four, maybe three years old, but I do remember. It’s hard to believe but I do remember that it was so flat that you could see the curvature of the earth. When a train came into vision at nine o’clock in the morning it was still leaving at noon. You could see it leaving; it took that long to go across the prairie" (Martin in Lance: 2003: documentary film).

After her father’s death, her mother took her four young children to live for two years with their maternal grandfather, a devout, Scottish Presbyterian of whom Martin was immensely fond[2]. Martin said that he gave her the mental and physical space to have “a free life”, and allowed the children to express their own potential without criticizing or interfering (Martin in Simon: 1996: 87). He implanted his appreciation of the Bible within Martin at this early age and she continued to find inspiration in it: “I quote from the Bible because it’s so poetic, though I’m not a Christian" (Martin in Sandler: 1993: 12). In her journal in 1972, she recorded a surprising revelation that she had from a passage in Isaiah that evokes life’s unending cycle of birth and death through the image of fading grasses and flowers:

The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:

The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.

The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

Isaiah: 40, 6-8, The Bible, King James Version, italics in original.

The unusual imagery and phrasing of the words “All people are grass” provided Martin with the inspiration to cross her hand-drawn horizontal pencil lines with vertical lines. This simple intersection of space and ground created the empty rectangles of her grid paintings. She wrote in 1972 (Martin, 1972: 1991: 39):

With these rectangles I didn’t know at the time exactly why

I painted those rectangles

From Isaiah, about inspiration

“Surely the people is grass…”

… Then I drew all those rectangles

All the people were like those rectangles

They are just like grass…

The recognition of the inherent beauty held within a field of grasses might have been sown in Maklin in her father’s wheat fields. To a small child, the daunting scale and repetition of vertical grasses and horizontal furrowed fields would have seemed endless. An image flashes into the mind of a peopled landscape, vertical individuals standing in a vast open field, silent, together yet separate in grief or resolution. In the poetical words of Isaiah, she could have found consolation for her father’s otherwise unfathomable death through an acknowledgment of nature’s ephemerality. Person and vertical become one: “the people is grass”. Martin fused memory and inspiration as she created a resonant motif in a deceptively simple hand-drawn grid. As she searched the Bible and Asian philosophies for a larger perspective within her life, real and metaphorical grasses provided inspiration and insight. In profound, self-revelatory words, she wrote in 1972 (ibid.: 40):

My painting is about impotence

We are ineffectual

In a big picture a blade of grass amounts to not very much

Worries fall off you when you can believe that…

The horizontal and vertical lines of Martin’s paintings hold profound emptiness as well as hope and potential. Absence and movement were major themes and characteristics of her work, life, and the places in which she lived. Her early life was unsettled for many years. Just two years after the death of her father, she left her beloved grandfather when her mother moved with her children to Calgary, Alberta. The family moved again in 1919 to Vancouver, British Columbia. Yet she has fond memories of this time: "Vancouver is a wonderful place to be in your youth. There are beaches all around. Everybody can walk to the beach. We swam every day. I actually fished every day. There’s everything, sailing and skiing. Hiking in the mountains. And now that I’m old, I think that hiking and camping in the mountains is one of my best memories" (Martin in Lance: 2003: documentary film).

In 1931, Martin went to America to help her sister in Bellingham, Washington, and subsequently studied there to become a teacher, graduating in 1937. In 1941, she went to New York to Columbia University’s Teacher’s College for a year, and stayed until 1946 to teach and paint. Her first encounter with New Mexico was in the fall of 1946 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. In the following year, she attended a summer school in Taos. In 1950, her sense of belonging in America was strong enough for her to take up American citizenship. She returned to Columbia University in 1951 for a Masters of Arts degree, but in the fall of 1952, she left for Oregon to teach at Eastern Oregon College in La Grande. She returned to Columbia in 1954 for post-graduate study before leaving for Taos in the fall. There she stayed for three years before returning to New York for a decade. This pattern of movement between New York and the western states continued until 1967.

Dore Ashton noted that the great Canadian prairies of Martin’s formative years “endowed her with an undying hunger for spaces" (Ashton: 1977: 7). From the fall of 1954 to 1957, Martin lived in Taos where she felt deeply connected to the land, but lived a life of extreme poverty. When she first arrived, Taos was a natural haven, a small ‘primitive’ town that had attracted artists since the turn of the century (Martin: July 2002: personal interview). Artists in Taos were beginning to be strongly influenced by Abstract Expressionism, and she became part of a small group of artists who drew their inspiration from nature[3]. Yet she was adamant in our conversation that it was the climate that attracted her to Taos. She said: “I was brought up by the sea and loved it. I thought the mountains would compensate for the sea but they don’t. I came here for the climate. I like the climate; it’s like this all year round… Taos was very different, not so many crowds… There are a thousand artists in Taos [now], an artist’s colony since the 1800’s. But I came for the climate" (ibid.).

During the summers of 1956 and 1957, the influential New York gallery owner Betty Parsons and the artist Kenzo Okado visited the Santa Fe area and were impressed with Martin’s work. Parsons presented her with the opportunity to exhibit at her gallery if she returned to New York, and in 1957, Martin was lured back for a decade. New York was a striking contrast to Taos with its very different sense of place, energy, and purpose. Ann Wilson wrote of their time together in New York: “[W]e were completely absorbed in our work and in a great emergence in visual and performance art. The impetus from the shock waves of the Second World War, existential thought, concepts emerging from Zen Buddhism, and the pause given to ideas about the purpose of life in the then important contemplation of the atomic bomb was what distinguished us from earlier, smaller American artists’ groups" (A. Wilson: 1998: 20).

In lower Manhattan, Martin chose the Coenties Slip area to live and work, a place of great character with formidable 19thcentury buildings associated with the area’s shipbuilding past. Her short foray into sculptural assemblages occurred here with paraphernalia she found in her loft (Cotter: 1993: 95). Her neighbours included prominent artists such as Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Lenore Tawney, Ann Wilson, and Jack Youngerman, many of whom were her friends (Haskell: 1992: 101). Yet one can imagine her endlessly gazing out from the large windows of her loft at the mesmerizing horizontal shimmer of the Hudson River for inspiration and perhaps as consolation for the loss of New Mexico’s vistas and natural beauty.

A Search for Direction

It is difficult to visualize Agnes Martin in the frenetic, urban environment of New York despite her artistic successes in the decade that she lived there. Knowing her affinity with the open spaces of New Mexico, she seems displaced in a city that was so all consuming. Her affinity with her Coenties Slip studio and the local art community gave her a much-needed sense of belonging. She once described her studio: “I had a perfect loft… It was 125 feet long, 30 feet wide. Windows right across on the river. And up the side it had two sky-lights. A beamed ceiling that was 14 feet high…. [It was on] the fifth – the top [floor]. Honestly, I could see the expressions on the faces of the sailors, it was so close to the river" (Martin in Simon: 1996: 89).

This evocative description of her ‘perfect’ space and the views of the river explain how Martin could live in New York. The large loft and windows gave her the very particular quality of spaciousness and refuge she required to maintain the contemplative inner life that was important to her. Dore Ashton recalled that Martin’s temperament ‘inclined her to solitude’ whether in city loft, desert, or mountains (Ashton: 1977: 8). But in 1967, Martin received a notice that her studio was to be torn down. She said, “I lived there for ten years and then they said they were going to tear the building down. I couldn’t imagine living any place else in New York so I left" (Martin in Lance: 2003: documentary film). In a 1991 interview with Marja Bloem, she revealed that “when a massive building went up just in front of the window of her studio shutting off her view of the water, the East River, it was clear that she had to go” (Bloem: 1991: 34). Her need to gaze out upon this view was clearly essential to her well-being and had sustained her during her time in New York. Martin’s departure from New York is frequently linked to the loss of her studio, yet she once revealed that she had been experiencing a strong emotional conflict linked to her art practice prior to being notified of losing her studio. “Every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting" (Martin in Poirier and Necol: 1983: 132). In 1981, Martin described her confusion: "Icould no longer stay [in New York City] so I had to leave, you see. I suppose you could say I wasn’t up to the demands and everything, the life I had to live there. But there was something else: that I came to a place of recognition of confusion that had to be solved. I had to have time and nobody’s going to give you time where I was. So I had to leave, but I also think it’s just like painting, I waited patiently for the, I don’t know, just something like permission to leave" (Martin in Horsfield: 1981: 1).

She spoke of this in another interview in 1976: “At that time, I had quite a common complaint of artists – especially in America. It seemed to have been something that happens to all of us. From an over-developed sense of responsibility, we sort of cave in. We suffer terrible confusion. You see, it’s the pressure in the art field in America" (Martin in Gruen: 1976: 94). Martin’s emotional state was a major contribution to her decision to leave New York and the intense focus of the art world. The responsibility and pressure that she was experiencing had reached a critical point. She made a revealing comment about ‘responsibility’ in relation to Mark Rothko: “He only committed suicide out of remorse, from having money, fame, and therefore a terrible responsibility" (Martin in A. Wilson: 1998: 39).[4] In 1972, she referred to a sense of ‘responsibility’ when she said, “People get what they need from a painting, the painter need not die because of responsibility" (Martin, 1972: 1991: 36). Yet her admission of her daily longing for death implies that she had reached a state of desperation. She was at a point of crisis in her life. and the notice of the loss of her studio provided further impetus for action. A fateful synchronicity occurred the following day. “I got a notice they were tearing down my studio. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t like it anywhere else in New York. The next day I won a prize for my painting so I went to Detroit. I took the $5000 to Detroit and went to a dealer and said, I want the best pick-up and camper that you have" (Martin: July 2002: personal interview). She recounted her journey:

"I left New York and travelled for about a year and a half, waiting for some inspiration. You see, if you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait for a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take. I never move without a sort of command from my mind. And so I left New York. I went on a camping trip. I stayed in forest camps up north which could camp three thousand people. But there was nobody there. I was there alone. I enjoyed it. I had this problem, you see, and I had to have my mind to myself. When you’re with other people, your mind isn’t your own. Well… finally you see, I remembered New Mexico. I was there before, but I travelled a long way, as far as I could go, and in every direction" (Martin in Gruen: 1976: 93).

Martin was fifty-five years old and a very successful artist creating mature paintings when she set off alone into the unknown. Although inner and outer rationales amplified her decision, the length and breadth of her remarkable exodus from New York showed the depths of her desperation and determination. “I went all over. I drove 6,000 miles in northern Canada alone. I spent almost two years driving around and wondering where to go. I slept in the back of the truck" (Martin in Spranger: 2002: 22). What stopped her nearly two years of travelling was surprisingly unexpected. “Then I had a vision of an adobe brick. Just the brick. And I thought, that means I should go to New Mexico. So I went to New Mexico…. I was driving though Cuba, New Mexico, and I went to a gas station. I asked the manager if there was anybody that he knew who had land outside of town with a spring. And he said, ‘Yes, my wife does.’ She had 50 acres on top of this mesa" (Martin in Simon: 1996: 89).

She paid close attention to her dream-like vision of the mud brick that called her back to New Mexico and her strong connection with nature. La Portales Mesa became a turning point. "Sometimes, nature calls to you and says, Come and live with me. So I decided to experiment with the simple life. I think our culture is orientated towards ego, and winning and overcoming and all of that. Our culture is so chaotic and materialistic. So I decided to experiment with simple living; I went up on top of a mesa that is eight miles long and six miles wide and there was nobody up there and the nearest house was six miles away. There was no electricity and no telephones. I stayed up there for years and became as wise as a Chinese hermit" (Martin in Sandler: 1993: 14).

Martin’s decision to ‘experiment with simple living’ on the mesa allowed her the time and space to engage with nature and the land in a way that was deeply contemplative while also being extremely challenging. As she worked with the materials of the land to create her home and studio, she created a strong sense of place and belonging. "I’ve only ever built in the natural way… I built two adobe houses in my life. On the mesa at Cuba I made the bricks, six at a time in a wooden frame. Then you stack them in the sun, it only takes two days it’s so hot there. I built my studio out of logs, fifty feet long by twenty-five. I was out driving one day and I came across a truck with a crane and I asked if it were for sale. They said it was. It was only $500. So it was easy building with the logs, I didn’t even have to step on the gas, it just inched them up. I had somebody helping me. I bought the logs; he only charged me fifty cents a foot. They were big logs; it was very cheap. I put a permanent finish on them… and I made a stone fireplace so I know how heavy rocks are. It took me a year and a half to recover" (Martin: July 2002: personal interview).

Alone in the sparse beauty of the thousand-foot-high La Portales Mesa, Agnes Martin ‘built’ a life on the land, in Heidegger’s sense of ‘dwelling in place’ (Heidegger: 1971: 148). She didn’t paint for six years after leaving New York, but began to write extensively[5]. In her journals, she combined common sense with an all-pervasive spiritual philosophy in a complex set of ideas that seemed to art critic Lawrence Alloway to be distinctively American. He noted that they brought together “non-institutional revelation, personal modesty, links between the one and the many, the great and the small”, and an attitude to ‘Nature’ to be both “approached and transcended, respected and rejected" (Alloway: 1973: 36).

Four years after she built a mud brick pueblo home, she built a studio, and only then began to paint again (Martin in Lance: documentary film: 2003). But three years later in 1977, a familiar theme of loss recurs. “The only mistake I made was that they didn’t know exactly where their land was, and I accidentally built on the land that belonged to her [the owner’s] brother. They finally took it back" (Martin in Simon: 1996: 89). Martin had firmly put down roots on that wide mesa. This reclamation and upheaval had echoes with previous losses of childhood places and her loft at Coenties Slip. Absence and loss would again reinforce her need to make sense of life, to seek happiness and find peace. In 1977, at the age of sixty-five, Martin left the mesa and moved to Galisteo, New Mexico, and hand-built another adobe house. Here she stayed for sixteen years. Only in 1993, at the age of 81, did she leave, returning to Taos where was notably ‘unretiring’ in her prolific output of new paintings.[6]

A Ground of Loss

Agnes Martin abandoned painting for six years after leaving New York in 1967. In late 1973, she destroyed a year’s work before completing a series of nine-inch square drawings on paper to her satisfaction (Borden: 1973: 44).[7] This destructive pattern had previously occurred. “I painted for twenty years but I didn’t like my paintings so I didn’t show or sell them. I used to burn them at the end of every year" (Spranger: 2002: 21). Martin’s relentless search for perfection could be due to loss and trauma early in her life. When she lost her father and consequently her ‘home’ and sense of belonging as her mother moved her young family throughout the provinces of Canada, a ground of loss may have been established that would reverberate throughout her life and manifest in her art practice.

In a telling statement in 1972, Martin revealed that she believed that “the little child sitting alone, perhaps even neglected and forgotten, is the one open to inspiration and the development of sensibility" (Martin, 1972: 1991: 62). In a recent documentary film, she spoke of her childhood and said that she could even recall the moment of her birth: "I remember back very easily. I can remember the minute I was born. … I think everybody is born one hundred per cent ego, after that it is just adjustment. I adjusted as soon as they carried me into my mother, about twenty minutes later. Half my victories fell to the ground. My mother had the victories. I’ll tell you, she was a terrific disciplinarian. I imitate her... My mother never said a word. You know, she didn’t do anything. And as a disciplinarian, I didn’t talk either. It was just miraculous that it worked" (Martin in Lance: 2003: documentary film).

This extraordinary statement about Martin’s mother being a woman who through grief, temperament, or generation “never spoke a word” to her children reflects dysfunctionality. She bequeathed a legacy of silence and repression to her daughter, “the little child sitting alone, perhaps even neglected and forgotten”. This loss of normal childhood intimacy would have intensified Martin’s sensitivity. In her own words, “If you are alone you focus in on everything, you’re just affected by everything: the sky and the wind and the air and nature, all of nature" (ibid.).

Martin may have gained an aesthetic sensibility and sense of awe and appreciation of nature at a young age, but she was also imprinted with loss and grief. As a grown woman, she felt responsibility and pressure from the art world in New York, and lost her studio and close friendships. When she also lost her hand-built home on the mesa in New Mexico it would again have reinforced early childhood losses and absences. The experience of trauma in childhood often forms and deforms the personality, and a quest for feeling a sense of safety and control are sought that carries into adulthood. Trauma manifests itself in individuals through isolation, withdrawal, trying to ‘be good’, but most importantly through obsessive and monotonous repetition (Herman: 1992: 47-49).

For over forty years, Martin charted hand-drawn lines to the canvas edge, sometimes hovering near, always returning to begin the journey again and again and again. She recognized that few artists have worked with such a limited motif: “I painted horizontal lines for forty years… They’re all horizontal lines; I think that’s some kind of record" (Martin in Lance: 2003: documentary film). Standing before one of her paintings, one can feel a sense of the unheimlich, the uncanny, a very subtle ‘outsider’ quality that reflects a deep psychological ‘inside’ through the very obsessive nature of the repetition of simple, ubiquitous lines.

Freud used the term unheimlich to refer to the shift that occurs when the familiar becomes unfamiliar, unsettling, and often terrifying (Freud: 1981: 217)[8]. The homely and intimate suddenly turn into unhomely, psychological territory that is uncomfortable and unknown, where what should be life-giving becomes its opposite. Wounding and repression often resonate within the unheimlich, and in Martin’s case, I believe psychological wounding occurred in repeated disruptions to her sense of security and belonging. Trauma creates ‘frozen time’, and as such imbues a timeless quality in the lives of those affected. While her work can be seen as being contemplative, the inherent repetition can also be seen as a tragically reinforced expression of loss. Her methodical delineations of time through horizontal and vertical lines being attempts to rectify that loss. The nature of her paintings’ making reflects more than the horizons of its placement, it speaks of displacement.

In 1998, Martin defined her paintings as being successful if “you can get in there and rest, the absolute trick in life is to find rest" (Martin in A. Wilson: 1998: 17). This quest for a place and space to rest speaks of a soul not at rest. One is continually aware of what is not said or depicted in her measured lines. This uncanny quality of Martin’s work is conveyed to the spectator, allowing them to be complicit in what Rosalind Krauss called the “modernist vocation” of the stare. In The Optical Unconscious, Krauss wrote: "The traumatic event, the missed encounter, what Lacan comes to call the tuche, produces not excitement but loss, or rather excitement as loss, as a self-mutilation, as something fallen from the body. The repetition automatism set in motion by this trauma will work thereafter to restore that unknown and unknowable thing, attempting to find it, that is, on the other side of the gap the trauma opened up in the field of the missed encounter. The structure of trauma, then, is not just that it initiates a compulsion to repeat but that it institutes the gap of the trauma itself – the missed encounter – as the always-already occupied meaning of that opening onto a spatial beyond that we think of as the determining character of vision. For it is from the other side of the perceptual divide that the signifier will come, the object capable of standing for what the subject has lost. It is this object that the child sets out to find, supplying itself with an endless series of substitutes that present themselves to it, in the world beyond the gap" (Krauss: 1993: 71-72).

Martin’s obsessive repetition could be an attempt to restore and heal the ‘missed encounter’ of loss and displacement that occurred in her life. Trauma is temporarily repressed by her endless linear repetitions across canvas grounds that replaced the lost places of her life. Her lines and bands of colour are endeavours ‘to restore the gap’ as she attempted to create a safe space. Peter Read noted in Returning to Place: The meaning of lost places, that those who suffer the loss and continued deprivation of a place of attachment often suffer psychological disturbance, technically referred to as the effects of “transient situational disturbance” and “reduced environmental stimulation" (Read: 1996: 156-57). He recognised a “desperate need to go home” within those who have been displaced (ibid.: 157). For a sensitive small child unable to articulate the complex emotional turmoil of loss, insecurity, and grief, this unrest could understandably form a pattern where a search for a sense of belonging and a connection to place became paramount.

Through Martin’s grounded acts of place making, New Mexico became a place of security and safety. There she found a place where she could not only engage with the land, but also a place to work with the ‘confusion’ that she carried. She methodically controlled and notated the immeasurable presence of an otherwise engulfing time and space through absences that she endlessly repeated in her paintings. She said in 1973 that "It is hard to realize at the time of helplessness that that is the time to be awake and aware. The feeling of calamity and loss covers everything. We imagine that we are completely cut off and tremble with fear and dread. The more we are aware of perfection the more we will suffer when we are blind to it in helplessness. But helplessness when fear and dread have run their course, as all passions do, is the most rewarding state of all" (Martin, 1973: 1991: 71).

Martin’s hand-drawn lines mark time and confront pain as stroke by stroke she registers her reality with dignity to avoid facing the void and sense of helplessness that might otherwise overwhelm and consume her. She acknowledged that "The solitary life is full of terrors. If you went walking with someone that would be one thing but if you went walking alone in an empty place that would be an entirely different thing. If you were not completely distracted you would surely feel “the fear” part of the time… I am speaking of pervasive fear that is always with us. It is a constant state of mind of which we are not aware when we are with others… In solitude this fear is lived and finally understood… self-destructiveness is the first of human weaknesses. When we know all the ways we can be self-destructive that will be very valuable knowledge indeed. We cannot afford one moment of antagonism about anything… I am not moralizing, but simply describing some of the states of mind that are a hazard in solitude" (ibid.: 91-92).

With a legacy of ‘discipline’ bequeathed from her mother, Martin was resolute in her determination to develop an attitude of restraint and perseverance in her artwork and life to face her fears. She reduced her visual language to the barest minimum, but rejected the blank canvas of Minimal artists for a ground upon which she could engage in a practice of mindfulness for survival. In a 1979 lecture, she spoke of the journey of life as “an arduous happiness in which we move forward" (Martin, 1979: 1991: 116). Her paintings are journeys that she undertook with with urgency. In 1972, she wrote in her journal that “Walking seems to cover time and space but in reality we are always just where we started" (Martin, 1972: 1991: 17). Her lines find a pace and distance that is distinctly human as they hover near or reach the canvas edge, only like Sisyphus to return to begin the journey again and again.

In an uncommonly pointed review of Martin’s otherwise extremely well received 1993 Whitney Museum exhibition, Donald Kuspit interpreted this journey as “fatalistic” and “without hope”: "Behind all the supposed spirituality and mysticism that have been attributed to Martin’s Formalist paintings, the development of her increasingly hermetic, ultimately monodic works shows her working through a death wish but unwittingly submitting to it. In the end the desert of the grid unmistakably discloses the sense of desertion that her withdrawn art and life acted out all along" (Kuspit: 1993: 92).

Although her life and work manifested the external characteristics associated with trauma – obsessive repetition, withdrawal, and isolation – she ultimately gained consolation and rest through her painting practice. She never used the term ‘trauma’ to describe the losses within her life, but her mythic journey from New York in 1967 at a time of crisis in her life points to her urgent need to find a place where she could finally rest and heal. Although her work is not a direct or literal translation of the landscape, Martin’s horizontal lines resonate with the vast expanses of her Canadian birthplace and the American Southwest. As late as 1996, she was quoted as saying that she could paint her works anywhere: “I don’t think it matters where you live. I painted the same when I was in New York as I do here" (Martin in Simon: 1996: 83). Yet the qualities of space and place most important to her drew her back to New Mexico. Reading between the lines, she thought that she could paint anywhere, yet it is clear from her writings and paintings that New Mexico gave her not only inspiration, but allowed her to feel a sense of well-being in the wide-open spaces.

Only in 2002, two years before her death, did Martin finally admit the seminal importance of place in her life: “I think it is more important to figure out where you want to be than it is what you want to do. First you have to find where you need to be, and then you can do what you need to do" (Martin in Rifkin: 2002: 14). This unequivocal revelation confirms that she clearly found the place of her belonging. “I didn’t come out West,” she said, “I came home" (Martin in Kusel: 1999: 61).


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[1] Many Australian Aboriginals believe that the influences of a place enter each person at the place of conception (Swain: 1993: 39). David Abram believes cadences of place enter our psyche before language (Abram: 1996: 74-76).

[2] “My relatives were from Scotland. I went back to see if I could find any but they were all dead. Some of them went to New Zealand, they were whalers, and others to Canada. They were from the Isle of Skye." (Martin: July 2002: personal interview).

[3] A group that included Louis Ribak, Bea Mandelman, Wolcott and Georgett Ely, Clay Spohn, Dorothy Brett, Earl Stroh, and Edward Corbett (Haskell: 1992: 98-99; Borden: 1973: 40).

[4] Rothko was an artist that Martin knew personally. They both exhibited at Betty Parsons Gallery. He died in 1970 (Bloem: 1991: 35).

[5] Many of Martin’s writings from this period were published in 1991 in Dieter Schwarz’s edited volume, Agnes Martin, Writings/Schriften (Martin: 1991).

[6] In 1993 Martin moved to a retirement community in central Taos and had a studio a mile away.

[7] She completed these small works in pencil on paper of grids and horizontal lines in 1973 that were published in 1974 by Parasol Press in grey silkscreen ink. A survey exhibition of her work was shown in 1974 at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art that would have provided a valuable opportunity for Martin to reflect upon her artwork. At the end of that year, she allowed a series of six-foot paintings to leave her studio (Bloem: 1991: 34). These works marked the end of her use of the grid as a motif.

[8] I refer to this aspect of repression rather than Freud’s later interpretation of the uncanny as taboo.

© Copyright of Mapping the Mesa text and photographs Dr. Victoria King 2022.

Photographs of mesa outside of Taos, New Mexico and Agnes Martin taken by Victoria King in 2002.