Looking at the horizon, an apparent line is the natural authority we rely upon to separate earth and sky. It is deceiving in its precision, often transcendent in its effect. Recently, I made a trip to the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico to visit the Agnes Martin Gallery. The calm authority of the space conjured up similar feelings, as I studied a series of Martin’s paintings and discovered expanding qualities in defiance of their spare forms.
“We live a transcendental life all the time, all day long.” —Agnes Martin
Sitting on a small bench in the center of the octagonal space, I was reminded of a visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston a number of years ago. Both places invoke feelings of reverence, perhaps eclipsed here by a surprising sense of lightness. Designed according to the artist’s wishes, the gallery features a series of seven paintings completed in the early 1990s when Martin returned to live in Taos. An oculus installed overhead and four Donald Judd benches placed beneath guide viewers in an experience best described by Martin’s own phrasing: “trembling and sensitive images are as though brought before our eyes even as we look.”
While the artist’s clarity of vision emphasized a non-objective approach, I could not help but relate these paintings back to the surrounding environment. A series of repeating horizon lines emerged; undoubtedly, inspired by the daily views I’ve experienced since arriving in Santa Fe. The surrounding mountains and ridges create a series of long, undulating lines, rising and falling like illegible script. This aspect is one of my favorite things about this landscape, contributing to its unique sense of place.
Since visiting the Harwood, I’ve been thinking about Agnes Martin’s hermetic working methods and the dynamics of relationship between artist and place. For her, the solitude found in this landscape was vital to the pursuit of a vacant mind and emotion in the abstract. Martin aimed to detach from the world and its ideas in order to realize her artistic vision and embody her unique worldview. One might argue that she was in but not of this place, though she is now highly revered as part of its history. Others could say that in the creation of her paintings, she sought to provide us with a sense of freedom from complications of the involved life. This trajectory raises interesting questions about the notion of authority in relation to artistic practice, both in terms of how we define our aesthetic vision and the agency we have (or seek) in relation to the respective communities we work in.
When art historians and critics address Martin’s paintings, variations of the word “phenomenon” often appear. Rosalind Krauss spoke of her use of the grid as an “attempt to discover—at the level of pure abstraction—the objective conditions, or the logical grounds of possibility, for the purely subjective phenomenon of vision itself.” In her introductory essay for Martin’s 2006 exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation, curator Lynne Cooke described paintings that “vestigially evoke the phenomenal world” with their elusive contemplative moods and delicately atmospheric spaces.
A phenomenon is something known through the senses rather than by thought or intuition. If we step into the scientific realm, this definition extends to events of scientific interest—elements of natural phenomena such as the weather, or say, the effects of atmospheric conditions on the horizon line. Considering my own work, I realize how often I’ve embraced the elements of chance in its creation. Thus far, the authority I’ve unwittingly sought has been that of a quick and responsive approach rather than a sustained and overarching vision.
Unless, that is, the sustained and overarching vision is the commitment to a quick and responsive approach. I say this in jest, but perhaps there are elements of truth there. In the introductory chapter of The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, Lucy Lippard identifies place as “the locus of desire.” In a society where mobility has arguably become more common than stability, her book explores the varied work of artists responding to place and embracing the idea of multicenteredness. As she states, “each time we enter a new place, we become one of the ingredients of an existing hybridity.” In addition to examining the dialectic between rest and restlessness, she reveals the dynamics at play for artists that are invested in raising consciousness about ideas related to their land, history, and culture.
The subject of a major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Materializing “Six Years”: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art, the writer, art critic and activist has recently enjoyed renewed recognition as an authority on the Conceptual art movement in New York during the 1970s. I discovered that she also co-founded Printed Matter during that time. Coincidentally, Lippard now lives in the nearby town of Galisteo, New Mexico. Becoming more familiar with her writing has been especially meaningful here as quite a few of the sites she references in her dialogue about place are in this area. Attending a recent panel discussion at the O’Keeffe Museum, I had the chance to hear her speak about the politics of land use in New Mexico and compelling artwork made in response to those issues (namely, the work of Patrick Nagatani). Using expansive modes and circles of engagement, Lippard has created a powerful example of how to embrace and respond to the changing dynamics of place.
During my last visit to New York this winter, I finally made it to Printed Matter to get lost for a while in the overwhelming stacks of artists’ books. At that time, the organization was still recovering from damages caused by Hurricane Sandy amidst preparations for their LA Art Book Fair. Whatever tensions they were negotiating, the place was and remains its own kind of natural force. After reading an interview about the organization’s inception in 1976, I was intrigued by Lippard’s relaxed account: bringing this organization to life while sitting around a coffee table in her loft with Sol LeWitt and others interested in the effort. In addition to their earnest commitment to making artists’ books more marketable and available, she also admitted it was “a point in my own life where I couldn’t sit down at a table with people without starting an organization.”
There is something very encouraging in hearing about the inception of what now exists as the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of artist-made publications. I think of Lippard and LeWitt drinking coffee at the table he made for her; then I think of the many other tables at which I’ve lingered, through wandering conversations in graduate school, and since, about the work and the spaces we hope to create. In simplest terms, it is about responding to an awareness of personal and collective need. The dynamics and technologies of our time may be different, but the actions required to set those ideas in motion remain largely the same.
Bringing my thoughts back to the long ridgelines surrounding Santa Fe, I return to the natural phenomena of this area and those striking horizon lines. Perspective drawing taught us this concept in one simple and decisive action. Always at eye level, its placement determines where we seem to be looking from. The actual horizon might not be visible, but you need to draw a “virtual” horizon in order to keep the picture in perspective.
As an artist invested in conceptual notions related to place and the integration of varied experiences and materials into my work, I find assurance in Lucy Lippard’s ideas related to multicenteredness and the power of engagement. As an artist working towards clarity and a cohesive vision, I find inspiration in the intensity of Agnes Martin’s dedication. In either case, wherever it lies, at this point the most important thing is to keep drawing the line.
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