Up the spiral again I go. And before I make my first turn, I look up. I see the glass dome, twelve parts. The image of a Gothic rose window looms in my mind. In the 1940s, in a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright, Hilla Rebay, the eccentric curator of the Guggenheim collection, described her vision of the future museum as ‘a temple of spirit.’ Only this cathedral is turned on its side, its glass not stained, letting the light in from the very summit; its void disturbed, giving rise to a reeling wave which in its tumult finds a new equilibrium, bringing the spatial maelstrom to everlasting restrained gyre. I turn on my axis, the spiral rotates, taking concave dip, its gravity pulling me in up the ramp.
I take the bowed rise to the first level, and enter the room on the side. It holds twelve square paintings from 1979, The Islands I - XII, 72 inches each. The paintings’ ground is cooler and lighter than the yellowish wall. At first glance, the canvases seem similar, with subtle variance. But as I go from one to the next, I realize how different they are; the same graphite lines create a new space in each work and establish a distinct rhythm. Each one takes its time to emerge in front of my eyes. They slow down my viewing. I become aware of my head turning, of my eyes’ curvilinear paths, of my breath rising and falling as I mill around and depart each island.
I exit the alcove and start at the beginning. Or so I think. The earliest paintings in the show date from the mid-1950s. Martin was born in 1912 in Canada. She started painting when she was 30. In one of the short films screened in the museum library, Martin mentions that until she turned 44, she burned her paintings in a bonfire at the end of each year. Very few of her paintings from the 1940s, her first New Mexico sojourn, survive, and none are included in this show of over 100 works. I lean unto the railing with my back, imagining the flames, the melting paint, the chemical smell. Wasn’t it like destroying a part of yourself? shedding an old skin? clearing a new space? rebirth in fire? Perhaps all of it. And I wonder if we can ever fully comprehend the artist’s creative process, which is never about creating a piece, but realizing a vision. I imagine such call is like a force of nature that conceives and breaks down for creation to continue. I catch the sound of water flowing in the fountain right below me. And I remember the Russian saying “water grinds the stone” wondering if an artist’s eye functions similarly. Gliding over countless times, faceting the stone of the visible world so the unseen dimensions will come alight.
The spiral’s bands cut my views, slicing each level, cropping paintings, truncating viewers. As I take the next turn, I glance back down at the ramp: The spiral is reversed. Across the void, people walking down. I look into the room with the Islands from the balcony created by the second level of spiral. From above, these paintings look much more in focus. Gone is the soft misty transition from one to the next that I felt at level with them, as if one would slowly release me from its atmosphere, while another gently envelop into its own nebula. From this distance and downward angle, each work’s lines are as if incised, the modulations of color are fine and clear cut. There’s a precision, rigor and single-mindedness about this body of work that makes me think of a perfect cluster in which each body is dependent on each, and the gravity of each is mutually offset, resulting in a gently vibrating, restrained balance.
I watch Martin painting on film. The two short films, screened in the library, were recorded by the filmmaker Mary Lance in 2001 and 2002, just before the artist’s death in 2004. One captures the artist painting; another is a short interview. Together they last about 11 minutes. At that time of filming, 90-year old Martin lived in the retirement home in Taos, New Mexico, maintaining a small studio nearby. The canvas she is working on is about her height. Her heavy body moves along it slowly, painting yellow bands with thin water-consistency paint in a bowl she holds in her hand. I feel I witness a mystery. There’s hardly a space between the artist’s body and her canvas, her brush presses it, diluted paint runs down, and only barely audible sounds of human body at work are present. She is on the screen in front of us, and yet she is somewhere else, where there’s only her and her canvas. Watching her at work for these several minutes, I realize she is present in her work with her body, as if her painting and her shared a skin.
During the filmed interview Martin says that she does not think when she paints, but keeps her mind empty. Stilled mind, concentration, absence of wandering thoughts? I can sense it in the movement of her filmed body at work. Somehow there are no gestures or motions or deliberations; rather a single restrained drive, a slow protracted impulse of her whole being imprinting her presence in the world on an empty canvas. Martin mentions that her works come to her as visions, the size of postage stamps, and then she actualizes them in her paintings and drawings. Is the emptiness a space for a vision to find its form, its body?
As I watch and listen, and later read her work, I feel the distance between her work and her words. Martin wrote a lot, and I wonder what her words meant for her and her practice. I am afraid that the scope and function of her words is often reduced when they are put to work to explain her art or are interpreted literally, rather than symbolically, with the recognition that the artist’s internal world is out of our reach. One of the wall labels reads that”…perhaps informed by her interest in Taoism, she [Martin] believed that the purest freedom and thus greatest happiness resided in the mind of a newborn child, an innocent mind unconditioned by learning and socialization…” If only we truly came here as tabula rasa.
Back to the artist’s words:
You must discover the art work that you like and realize the response that you make to it. You must especially know the response that you make to your own work. It is in this way that you discover your direction and the truth about yourself. If you do not discover your response to your own work you miss the reward. You must look at the work and know how it makes you feel.
If you are not an artist you can make discoveries about yourself by knowing your response to work that you like.
I wonder if writing for Martin was about discovering her response and not just to her work in its sense of a materialized instance of vision, but to her practice of painting, drawing, looking and in this way being in the world as creative instrument herself. It takes me effort to imagine an artist continuously responding to her own practice, and not just her work, because I suppose that process involves a separation from that very practice that is essentially yourself. Watching the film again: The artist’s mellow, yet tenacious, presence in her act of painting with her body. Perhaps in her writing she is searching for her response and for her (re)discovery of the world altered by her own vision. Her writing is not subordinate to or explanatory of her painting. It is her presence outside her painting, in her internal world unknowable to us.
As I think about her words, I gain in freedom of my looking at her work, observing encounters between it and myself. Approaching it through my body; watching my movement, my mind. And later, separated, I make my response visible to myself in words. I ask myself if her work to an extent mirrors her practice onto a viewer.
Turn. I come to the slanted railing and look across the void. People are walking up, strolling down. Which direction does the spiral run? As if its spring has unraveled and its perfect twine is now in a state of disarray. I return to the artist’s work. It is early 1960s, and Martin has been living in New York for over 10 years, now moving to the Coenties Slip (today South Street Seaport) neighborhood where many artists lived at the time. I look at small works, around 12 inches on each side, and large 72 inch paintings. The small work is tentative, exploratory, like journal entries. Small grids. Uneven dots carefully arranged in lines. I am curious how Martin worked on these pieces. On the easel? Hunched over them at the table? These works I cannot counter with my full body. I come close, I bend forward, I peer in, I want to hold, to touch them. Perhaps, I feel the vulnerability of the artist’s intimacy with those small paintings that she handled with her hands, possibly turning around, up and down, hovering over them, enveloping them with her body.
The large grids are different. I don’t see the grid-work unless I come close, and at that instance I feel a gentle push back. I oscillate, stepping back, nearing, and retreating again. As if there’s a soft coil between me and the work. I think of discipline, focus, routine, and determination. The artist in front of the six foot canvas making a fine grid with graphite. I imagine having to keep your hand steady on the somewhat uneven canvas surface. Your whole body would feel every tiny bump, every coarse patch. Step away – the grid recedes. Come close – the order emerges. The fluctuation of distance and proximity in the touch embodied in the graphite line, in the look alternating between close-up and whole, and in the body moving back and forth in the making and in the observing. The elusive structure, the fugitive consistency, and an instance of harmony as I center myself in the flux of my looking and being. I bend over the railing to peek at the grid of the dome above.
I come to the large painting from 1963, titled Friendship. It is a grid, incised on the gold leaf. I like this painting the least; I pause trying to discover it. I think of a shield, sarcophagus. If the graphite grids emit light, this work absorbs it. Its beaten, distressed gold is not about luminosity, but patina. To me, it is too much of an object, overdetermined in its breathless gilt, a precious trophy, rather than a footprint of a quest that beckons to wonder, to question, to doubt, and to go on.
Just before and right after I look at the small works on paper, around 10 inches, of grids and lines, sketches or postscripts, perhaps both. I like these unassuming, modest explorations, with line venturing into new space, and then finding refuge in the familiar grid. It is not graphite on canvas, but ink and watercolor on paper; the question is not of steadiness in friction, but of balance and (dis)continuity of flow. Each piece is a query.
Caesura. Martin stopped painting in 1967, living New York. After a year and a half on the road in the United States and Canada, she moved back to New Mexico and built a house around Cuba living by herself till the end of her life. And I leave it at that, not trying to imagine anything, not wondering, not interpreting. I sit down, feeling her absence, suspending my step, my mind. I feel the distance, the retreat from the world.
I get up, come to the edge of the tier, following the spiral with my eyes. Scraps of conversations... separate words... ’art stores’.... ’are you crazy’….yet I am unable to hear, to tune in. I feel like I have a seashell at my ear, only the sound is not of waves, but of human cacophony. Where am I? My body experiencing the tug of two universes, of spiral and grid. One summons me forward, another asking me to stop, even if for a moment, to linger, to come to a standstill, however brief. I wish for silence. And then I wonder if Martin had one. She is said to have been hearing voices (diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1960s). Perhaps, her universe was full of sound and echo of the world she left behind.
I continue and come to a group of 30 screen prints from 1973, On a Clear Day. Martin’s return to making work. They are small and simple, essentially variations on a grid. I think of coordinates, of charting one’s place in the world once again. And in the paintings and small drawings from the mid and late-1970s that follow, in their airy blue, transparent pink, in their wide and narrow bands, vertical and horizontal, I feel my eyes rest; bathe in a subdued light, in fresh tears. I think of rainbow, of reflections in water, of seeing something familiar in a different light. I look across the void. From a distance the grids from the 1960s now look murky; I experience their weight.
Turn. I spend some time in front of the austere grey paintings from 1989 and 1990. Martin called them her “black paintings.” They are the darkest of her grey pieces, the most opaque of all her work. I obey their gravity – they hold me close for a while. As I follow each band, each line from left to right and in reverse, shifting between different tones of grey and widths of bands and lines, I detect the magnetic-like force that compelled me to a halt and is making me realize the solidity of my body, the weight of my movements and gestures, as if shifting the layers of air as I surrender to and resist the works’ pull. There’s a feeling of readjustment in this experience, as if my body is finding itself at a different elevation or in a different environment needing to become aware of itself once again, to feel the new ground and to make it familiar.
Just one more level till the end of the spiral. In the mid-1990s Martin’s delicate blue and blushing pink became crisper and more ethereal. In 1993 the artist moved into a retirement home in Taos. Around that time, her large square canvases went down from 72 to 60 inches to allow for easier handling. I stop in front of the 60 inch painting from 2001, titled Gratitude. Two narrow yellow stripes at the top and bottom edges of canvas, a white and a gauzy red two horizontal stripes cutting the canvas in half, its areas above and below washed in a light thinned-down green. I think of a shifting, of balancing. I feel my body gently, barely noticeably vacillating from left to right and back, my eyes holding onto stripes running in the middle of painting. I think of my body breathing, living its bodily life so often not seen or felt by me. I watch my breath and notice the air touching my skin, passing through my body, as I become aware of my feet being firmly on the ground, yet my body moving in space.
Lost in that sensation, I find myself in front of two untitled works from 2003 and 2004, the years just before Martin’s death in 2004. There’s a split: two black triangles in the center in one, two black squares positioned diagonally in top left and bottom right in the second. I think of passage, of dichotomy, of being here and elsewhere. These paintings accelerate time, an instant feels long, they push me to keep going, but I sit down and take in the seeming tautness of these works’ stretch, the tension of their frames. As if the forms want to break free from the power that holds them within the limits of canvas.
And here it is, the very last painting at the very end of the spiral, my favorite in the show. Three bands of thin, fluid grey wash on white ground; the middle band is twice as wide as the two at the top and the bottom. The edges are not perfect. The wash is not uniform. I think of doubt, of uncertainty, of hesitation. But not in its sense of lack of faith or confidence, rather as a new vision which puts in question everything previously seen.
I am under the dome. It is not a rose window, far away, dazzling with color and light. It is a massive structure, layers of grid-iron, frosted glass panes. It is not soaring, but bearing the void, holding it in place, setting the spiral in reverse motion, so it can bounce back from the ground in its continuous tussle with gravity. I put my hand on top of the railing as I walk down, feeling the curve of the spiral, orbiting the void, my eyes drifting over paintings. The dome recedes. I am back on the ground, turning around myself trying to sync in with the spiral’s rotation. I exit and look at the building from outside. I think of an artist being in her body in this world. And I wonder if with time her body becomes an instrument attuned to the relationships in nature and universe, which an artist then embodies in her work.