Beauty

I’ve been reading – re-reading – , ‘Agnes Martin: Writings’. Published by Cantz, the texts follow one another, the English version, and then a translation into German. The book feels perfect, its size and weight, and the smooth, coated surface of the pale grey cover. There is a photograph of Agnes sitting in a rocking chair in front of a painted canvas, or perhaps it’s a large drawing, a framed drawing, it’s difficult to be sure. She is wearing a white smock and her hands are folded in her lap. Her upward gaze, directed towards the camera lens, looks pensive and slightly bemused, she is wondering perhaps, what am I doing here, why have I agreed to this charade? Beneath the black and white photograph is a single word ‘Writings’, and beneath that the German word, ‘Schriften’.

Her writing style can seem awkward at times, with odd turns of phrase and a halting rhythm. Headings include, “What is real”, and “What we do not see if we do not see”. She says things like, “… we are struggling from death into life” and you think, fuck yeah, that’s a nice turnaround!  In “The untroubled mind” she writes about painting, and a kind of mindlessness she aims for when working. Somewhere else she says, “I used to meditate until I learned to stop thinking – now nothing goes through my mind.” She writes about beauty, and how it remains impervious to destruction; “We say the rose is beautiful, and when the rose is destroyed then we have lost something, so that beauty has been lost. When the rose is destroyed we grieve, but really beauty is unattached”.

Thinking about Agnes Martin I have no inclination to look at her paintings, at least not on the Internet or in books. To see them is a joy but they’re not images, they don’t translate visually beyond their physical selves. I like thinking about them, I like that they exist. She writes about solitude, “… people who like to be alone, who walk alone will perhaps be serious workers in the art field”. It’s odd in some ways, her preoccupation with solitude; isn’t making art a kind of communion with others? Her preoccupation with being alone – “I paint with my back to the world” – with classicism, and with perfection, can seem strange in our time of artworks concerned with contingency and the provisional. She exhorts artists to give up the company of others, and even of pets! But that’s never going to wash around here.

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Borders

Recording the dimensions of a print on paper there is usually an, ‘image size’ and a ‘sheet size’. The larger sheet contains both the printed image and the surrounding area – the border. This area, though empty, has a significant effect on how the image appears; it frames and defines it. An intermediary between the image and the world, the border is also a reducer, defining the image as separate from the world around it. In the ambient world we live in demarcations are rarely so precise.

In Jean Cocteau’s film ‘Orpheus’ a mirror marks the passage between two worlds. Jean Marais (playing Orpheus) steps through the mirror (it becomes liquid as he passes through) and enters a passage to the underworld. I have no sense of an underworld, or the afterlife it necessitates (How can there be anything after life?). Beside us though, and I sense it running along beside us on a parallel track, is darkness – nothingness – its only definition given by what it is not. The line between existence and oblivion is thin. Lying awake at night I imagine this border as a pervious membrane (the liquid mirror). I am feeling blindly along its surface, leaning lightly against the tenuous sheet to better feel the pulse of life, and then, irresistibly, I am percolating through.

There is a photograph by Jacques-Henri Lartigue of his friend Guitty playing on the tideline. The photograph is old (1905) but depicts a search for a moment that never wears out. Guitty is trying to estimate the turning point (in French, the point mort), the moment when the incoming water will come to a stop and begin to recede. She runs across the line of water, lifting her skirts, fooled again by the unpredictable waves.

Gap


At the centre of Lindau, a tiny island on lake Konstanz in southern Germany, two churches sit side by side in the market square. The largest pipe organ resides in the loft of St. Stephan’s, while the catholic church of Heilage Maria boasts the more lavishly baroque interior. Both have a Kantor and an assembly of singers providing music for their congregations. Visiting St Stephan’s to attend a talk by the Kantor I found myself instead in the middle of the sunday service. Quickly finding an empty pew, I began to follow the worshippers movements, sitting or standing, according to them. The pastor, a woman dressed in a black gown and white ruffed collar, gestured to the front row of seats. The kantor and his singers stood up and arranged themselves in a line at the head of the church. Disavowing the instrument that made the church famous, the kantor uncovered a small electric piano and unsheated a slew of pages. He introduced the music by speaking briefly at the lecturn, finsihing with three words in english, “Lean on me”. The nine women and a male bass baritone wore identical shades of deep carmine. Gazing towards us, the attentive congregation (and me), the singers began to sway. With wide eyes and sincere gesticulations, the first words of the lyric came;

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, We all have sorrow

But if we are wise, We always know that there’s tomorrow”

German accents and Teutonic grooves (more jerky Kraftwerk than fluid Michael Jackson) combined to make this funky jingle strange. Mystery, by definition, remains allusive, but sometimes we might catch a glimpse of its location. The body language of the singers and the sentiments of the song were slightly out of sync, and this gap, between the singers and the song, was beautiful.