Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet (part 1).


I’m speculating here about different values and senses of self in relation to the Terrestrial world (in Bruno Latour’s sense). The way I’ll do this is through thinking with the work of three artists, Agnes Martin, Pat Steir and Eileen Lawrence and with John Burnside’s Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction (2021). I’ve chosen the three painters’ work in part because Martin influenced both Steir and Lawrence but, more importantly, because the work of all three women has stayed with me for a long time, and still prompts me to think feelingly about the role of painting in the broader culture.

The Scottish poet John Burnside died on the 29th of May this year at the age of 69. I have long valued a particular poem of his, Out of Exile, and shortly after I’d begun thinking about writing this essay, his last collection of his essays caught my eye while my wife was buying summer reading in a second-hand bookshop. As my friend Lindsey Colbourne has suggested, maybe there is no such thing as a coincidence. Whatever the case, finding Burnside’s text felt like a gift.

To speculate is, according to the dictionary, to “attempt to form a theory or to conjecture without firm evidence”. Any speculation by an individual on what works of art suggest – whether they’re visual or otherwise – can never deal with “firm evidence”. It can only deal with traces, however oblique, of the paradoxes, ambiguities and imponderables of life as culturally articulated. In what follows I will try to track a particular line of thought of my own, one that’s inevitably entangled in the thoughts of others who have written about the work of these three artists.

If I were still teaching art students, I’d encourage them to read and discuss Rebecca Solnit’s As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art (2001) because of what she writes there about beauty, Isabelle Stengers’ short essay Reclaiming Animism (e-flux 36, July 2012) because of her positioning of herself in relation to animism as a scientist and, for reasons that will become clear, Thomas McEvilley’s The Exile’s Return: Towards a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era (1993). Not, in the last case, because I’d expect the students to be making paintings, but because it enacts an attitude of mind I’d hope they’d take to heart.

McEvilley’s chapter on Agnes Martin in The Exile’s Return is contextualised by two proceeding chapters: Seeking the Primal through Paint: The Monochrome Icon and The Opposite of Emptiness. Put very simply, these argue that abstract art, both in its early European forms and later in the USA, doesn’t really carry the ‘progressive’ aesthetic significance that influential Formalist critics, particularly in America, attributed to it. He demonstrates that the development of abstract art is more accurately understood as a series of diverse attempts to capture, in visual form, something of the aura of a wide variety of philosophical, esoteric or mystical spiritual positions. Positions that, put very generally, involve notions of ‘purity’, ‘transcendence’, and ‘the absolute’ that require a rejection of the mundane everyday world in order to evoke a ‘higher’, more universal, state. An aspiration that was flipped over and replayed in terms of the material Realism of the “what you see is what you get” of Minimalism.

In so far as Formalist critics tied the development of abstract art into notions of ‘historical progress’, it became caught up in a broader cultural rhetoric that we now see as deeply problematic because it’s underwritten by assumptions of Western exclusivity, justifications of colonialism, and so forth. I value McEvilley’s writing in part because, in addition to being an art historian and art critic, he had a deep knowledge of the cultures of ancient Greece and India, and of the histories of their religious and philosophical traditions. As a result what he writes about art is informed by an understanding of the distinct values, held over time, by two of the world’s major cultures. That understanding offers a powerful antidote to the cultural exclusivity of Modernist Western art history and to the art world’s exaltation of novelty.

McEvilley discusses Agnes Martin’s work in a chapter called Grey Geese Descending. As might be expected, given his interests, he’s particularly sensitive to her involvement with Eastern thought. He recognises Martin’s engagement with “classical Taoist texts”, and describes her use of grids as analogous to Lao Tzu’s account of the purpose of the “Uncarved Block”. Martin claimed that she always painted the same theme and, when a viewer complained that there were no geese in Grey Geese Descending (1985), she responded by saying that she “painted the emotions we have when we feel gray geese descending”. As a serious student of Taoist and Buddhist teachings, Martin understood her own work as a path to the sublime  and McEvilley sees her mature work, produced in an isolated studio in Taos on the edge of the desert in New Mexico, in that light. How we respond to it will depend, in part at least, on whether we are sympathetic to such a reading or simply view it as perhaps the ultimate example of a Minimalist aesthetic.  

I had read McEvilley’s chapter on Agnes Martin long before I visited the Tate Gallery’s major exhibition of her work in 2015. Visiting it, I could respect her achievement as an artist committed to a particular view of art and, reading her text, Beauty is the Mystery of Life, I felt I understood and could appreciate what she argues for. However, I couldn’t really enter into the spirit of the work as she understood it. In retrospect I think my family history, particularly my childhood contact with the legacy of Calvinism in the Scottish Highlands and Isles, along with my having walked away from a spiritual practice with much in common with Martin’s, prevented that. At the time I didn’t know that Martin’s family originally came from the Isle of Skye or that her devout Presbyterian grandfather was a major influence in shaping her attitudes to life and work. I was aware, however, that certain contemporary Scottish artists had made a similar connection between a cultural background formed by a strict Protestantism and the visual language of Zen Buddhism. All of which finally brings me to what I see as a significant ambiguity inherent in artistic claims to access ‘the sublime’ or a ‘higher consciousness’ in some form or another. So all this is a preamble to exploring that ambiguity and, more importantly, to pondering what the psychic, social and environmental implications of such claims might be today.

Agnes Martin, Pat Steir and Eileen Lawrence.

I was aware of the importance of Agnes Martin’s work to Pat Steir well before I know that Eileen Lawrence shared that interest. I had been intrigued by Steir’s combination of painterly and conceptual elements when I came across her Looking for the Mountain (1971), which is based on one of a number of memorable visits she made to see Martin. It seemed to me then to share something of the eclectic approach to image-making I found in the early work of R.B. Kitaj, a touchstone for my work as a student, but with the important distinction, as I see it now, of dealing primarily with place.

My interest in Steir was confirmed by works like The Four Directions of Time: 1. Standard Time (1972), Cellar Door (1972), Line Lima (1973), Blue (1974) and Between the Lines (1974) but began to fade as, in my view, the work made later increasingly became more self-consciously “about” processes of making art, as with The Brueghel Series: A Vanitas of Styles (18982-84). McEvilley may well be correct when he writes that Steir was working out implications within Agnes Martin’s painting that Martin herself did not choose to address but, if so, they are implications that didn’t particularly interest me. What did interest me, when I first came to understand the influences on Eileen Lawrence’s early work, was the way in which she and Pat Steir briefly appeared to adopt a similar trajectory, only for the work to then diverge. In Lawrence’s case because, rather than an increasing preoccupation with art-making processes and art history, she set about absorbed two apparently irreconcilable orientations: that of Agnes Martin on one hand and of Joseph Beuys on the other.      

(to be continued)