Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet. (Part four)

In 1998 Agnes Martin, working with fine graphite lines and acrylic on a gesso ground,  made the painting that she would call Untitled no. 5. It’s hard to describe her paintings at the best of times. This one is, of course, square and made up of seven horizontal bands of colour – three are pale blue (top, middle and bottom) and two each a very pale yellow and a pale, slightly orange pink. So the sequence, from top to bottom, is blue, pink, yellow, blue, pink, yellow, blue. The overall sense of the painting seems to be of a quiet pulsing of pale-coloured light. I find it interesting to think about this highly “abstract” painting in relation to Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids (1991-92), which is made up of the seven separate horizontal bands (each 7.5 x 53 cms) painted in watercolour on paper with traces of gold leaf, principally in a block on the second band down from the top. While at first each band appears to be a red modulated by some degree of gestural marking, on closer inspection it becomes apparent that these marks are in fact more or less referential – to hair, to a leaf, to what might be a bone, and so on. The painting comes across as almost a distillation of what Lawrence undertook in two large oil paintings from the same period: Isis (1991) and Forms of Flight (1991-92), with which it shares certain iconographic elements. None of the three paintings is a literal representation. Rather they seem to me to evoke intuitions of certain senses of possibility. If Martin’s painting appears to be a statement of a unified, or perhaps more accurately barely qualified and transcendent sense of ‘happiness, joy and beauty’, as has been suggested, how are we to respond to Lawrence’s work?

I believe there is an important distinction that can be made between the vision of wholeness Agnes Martin seeks to articulate in Untitled no. 5 (1998), where articulation is reduced to subtle variations and repetitions of colour, and the highly particular and subtle alternative offered by Lawrence’s Seven Voids. Lawrence, like Pat Steir, is not prepared to strip her art down to what, in terms of mystical thinking, might be described as articulations of a sense of being only just on the human (differentiating) side of identifying with a luminous void. Unlike Steir, however, the faint “representational” references in Lawrence’s work to natural objects are less inflected by either Conceptualist concerns with the “language” of painting or with a play of Art Historical reference. While I see Steir as ultimately making art that, for all its use of references to such elements in the natural world as waterfalls, remains primarily concerned with intellectual questions about the nature of beauty and representation, I see both Martin and Lawrence, in their different ways, as ultimately concerned with what, very broadly speaking, can be called intuitions of ethical or spiritual concern. Exploring the difference between them is where, for me, John Burnside’s writing is so helpful.

For Martin as a painter, and as she famously said: “happiness is the goal, isn’t it”, so that she could describe her work as giving people the same feeling as “when you wake up in the morning”. But to frame my own response to Untitled no. 5 (1998) in that way would require me to acknowledge that, while there may have been brief moments on waking in the morning, at certain times in my life and in certain conditions, when that’s brought an unalloyed sense of happiness – a happiness very similar to that given at the end of a meditation session when my thoughts have dropped away and I am wholly in a state in which mind, body and feeling appear undifferentiated – this is a rare and highly exceptional state of being. One that depends on either a chance moment when, awakening, I find myself floating free from the flow of what John Burnside calls ‘the commonplaces of “the dailiness of life”, or else that I can try to reach through some form of deliberate psycho-spiritual practice. In either case what I am experiencing might be described as a brief detachment from the flow of time in which only an unqualified and somehow expanded present moment appears “real”. While I have no quarrel whatsoever with those who wish to pursue this moment as central to their life, as I believe Martin almost certainly did, my own circumstances lead me to be concerned with an alternative orientation grounded in the “thought of the heart”.

Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids, as I hope my description above makes clear, are not in fact voids at all, but neither do they simply provide “representations” of objects in the usual sense. Perhaps the simplest way to describe this work is to compare it to what differentiates a meditation session from my everyday state of attention. In that everyday state attention is constantly shifted in its focus – for longer or shorter lengths of time and both consciously and unconsciously – by thoughts, bodily sensations, or feelings. For example in working on this essay, while my conscious attention is primarily on the train of thought I am trying to follow, my attention as a whole fluctuates and flickers as it is taken by the draft from the window, the tension in my back that requires me to adjust my posture, or else is entirely broken when the postwoman knocks on the door.

In a good meditation session the draft, my back tension, even the postwoman’s knock, will all present themselves to my consciousness. However, while they are acknowledged for what they are and allowed to flow through, my attention remains focused on listening for, or attending to, the sense of undifferentiated wholeness, (which might also be called “emptiness” or a void) that lies beneath or behind that inevitable flow of thoughts, bodily sensations, and feelings. Agnes Martin’s Untitled no. 5, seeks to evoke a state where that flow is discounted or denied, or so it seems to me. In doing so it adopts an ideal position that I can respect but not identify with or aspire to. Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids appears, by contrast, to acknowledge the continuous shadowy flow of Burnside’s ‘commonplaces of “the dailiness of life”’, while simultaneously acknowledging a desire to listen for, try to be present to, what lies beneath or behind, what is co-present with, that flow.

Why does any of this matter? I suggest that a (very tentative) answer to that question might be that Lawrence’s approach is somehow closely bound up with Burnside’s balancing of commitment to the ecological need to practice, on a daily basis, ‘une vie commune’ – that is ‘a lived, deliberate conviviality in which all life is felt to be’ both ‘continuous’ and, in its flow, somehow present – with an acknowledgement that ‘each of us who is, or has been here on earth, is destined for inexistence’. That is, to acknowledge both the flow of life and the fact that our individual death is necessary to the continuity of that flow. To properly elaborate on this balancing act would require me to undertake a free and detailed paraphrase of Burnside’s highly personal yet deeply applicable essay ‘Blossom: Ruins’ in Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction, something I simply don’t feel competent to do. I would, however, recommend that book, and particularly its final chapter, to anyone who has followed me to this point.