When I was very young, I heard somewhere that the blue of the sky is the hardest color to mix with paints. It made sense to me that there must be something humans are always chasing, and if that were the case, it would necessarily have to be the heavens. Years later, in a painting class, mixing oily cobalt blue straight from the tube with a little titanium white, I wondered what all the fuss was about. I’d made sky blue: I held it up to the window to compare, and yes, it was sky. I could add buttery strokes of titanium white, for clouds, and dapple on a warmer white, if I wanted to light them, and then there was a whole spectrum of pinks and peaches and oranges for sunset or sunrise. It was that easy. There is even a commercially produced shade, I discovered, called cerulean. Its name derives from the Latin word for the heavens.
Years later, when I realized I wasn’t very good at painting, I considered that perhaps what I had heard about blue didn’t have more to do with expression than it had to do with replication; if what was difficult is trying to capture the size and depth of the sky: the distance that stretches between us and the rest of the universe. By that point, I’d studied painting long enough to know that there were many ways to make a surface look like something of the world—there were ways to paint oranges or glass bottles or slices of cake like Thiebaud—but that was only half the problem of art making. You could paint all sorts of things but it was harder to convey the feelings you had about them. When I tried to paint landscapes, I couldn’t capture that vast distance that was the sky, the blue that Rebecca Solnit, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, describes as “the light that got lost”:
The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us … This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.
Painting a canvas blue wasn’t enough. It was like dropping a curtain. All along I knew the world went on and on beyond the surface of the thing.
It’s not only the sky that is blue in this specific way. The light that gets lost is light that travels across distances, that gets scattered across that expanse of space and splits into color, like a burst of confetti or the spray of a waterfall. It’s the light that comes to us from afar, so places very high and very far appear to us as blue, too: places like distant cities or mountains or even the flat lip of a foggy horizon at sea. But that blue—that blue isn’t stored in those distant locations. And it isn’t stored in our eyes, either; we can’t carry it around with us, even if we buy thousands of tubes of cerulean. It’s in the distance between us and the place we observe, and that gives it its particular poignancy, because it’s a product of circumstance, never of active creation.
I went to Taos, New Mexico, this March for the express purpose of chasing down that blue. New York was starting to feel unbearable, as it does. I was burnt out; I felt claustrophobic; I have a stressful day job at a nonprofit, in trauma response, which only got more stressful in the weeks that followed the president’s inauguration, and I wanted to be free of all of the responsibilities I had found myself entangled in. The only solution seemed to be to run as far away as possible, so I got on a plane and a few dim hours later I was there, in the desert, in a city with no skyline.
The southwest, if you haven’t been there, is very wide. A turn seems to have more than 360 degrees to it. And it is very big. It’s as though you will never be able to breathe all that air. Everything is parched—on my first morning, I woke up with a nosebleed—but there are plants: scrubby bushes, mostly sage, which you’d think would scent everything, as they do in Eastern Oregon. In New Mexico they only give off fragrance when broken and rubbed between your hands, and it smells more like weed than incense. Not much of anything rises over the horizon, except for the mountains themselves, which are the frame of the world. The landscape is white, tan, ochre-red, and blue.
There’s a fifty-mile gorge that runs through New Mexico, cut so deeply into the earth that when I first glanced over the edge, I almost wet myself. It starts near the Colorado border and stretches southwest down past Taos. The gorge is eight hundred feet deep, and in its switchbacks live bighorn sheep and prairie dogs and red-tailed hawks and mule deer, and the Rio Grande runs clear through it. There’s a bridge just outside Taos that goes across it, called the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. They keep having suicides, but no one really knows what to do. I can understand why: the bridge is long and the guardrail is low and the wind whistles in your ears. When we stopped there, it was all I could do not to lean over and pitch myself into the basin of the river, which is so far below you that it feels as though it’s not really of this planet, and for the most part, I love being alive. On each of the viewing platforms—beneath which the earth drops the equivalent of eighty storeys—there is a small machine with a button that connects you directly to a suicide hotline, and to drive the point home, graffiti above the starburst mouth of the speaker says things like, You are Loved!
I am not sure if that would make me feel better if I were in crisis, but it’s possible it could. Later that day, on a hike, I saw a rabbit, small with huge and liquid eyes. It was hiding in a sage bush, and it let me come close enough to see its nose twitch. When I tried to take a photograph, it ran away.
A few months before my trip to Taos, I played hooky from work and went to the Guggenheim alone, to see the Agnes Martin retrospective that was up until earlier this year. I’ve always liked Martin, ever since my friend Annabel whisked me upstate to Dia:Beacon on my last day of finals to see her paintings, then promptly left me alone while she spent half an hour standing silently in front of a quiet, gridded painting called The Beach. I looked at the painting—a soft white ground covered in a delicate graphite grid—and I wanted to not only understand it but to feel what my friend was feeling. I couldn’t imagine what could possibly reward such prolonged looking.
Born in Western Canada, Martin moved to the US and worked as a teacher for several years before deciding, at age thirty, to become an artist. She painted in New Mexico for a time, making abstract landscapes and still lifes, then moved to New York in 1957, where she worked alongside abstract expressionists and other artists in a studio on the Coenties Slip. After her good friend Ad Reinhardt’s death in 1967 and the subsequent demolition of her studio’s building, she stopped painting and drawing, traveled through the states, and eventually resettled back in New Mexico, in a remote mesa, picking up her practice in 1973, where she made the six-foot square paintings she is best known for. She lived there in solitude until her death, iterating and reiterating the grids and gentle tones of her work.
What was there to explore; what was there to reward such prolonged looking? One might think that, being a pioneering minimalist, Martin’s work would feel cold or clinical, but it’s the farthest from cold I can imagine. Her paintings seem simple at first: grids, stripes, and geometric shapes rendered in almost unbearably subtle colors, by her later years almost always painted on those square canvases just larger than an average man’s wingspan. For me, it was how she answered the question of scale, how she asked a viewer to experience both near and far when viewing. From a distance, the paintings are serene. They appear thinly modified, the texture of the canvas visible; some even appear blank. Large patterns can be observed—the aforementioned stripes, grids, and geometries, forming an allover composition.
Up close, though, the work takes on a different energy: you can sense her hand in every mark, in the thinly applied paint and the graphite lines that lay atop the canvas, and to me, at least, it’s the slight variations in line and surface that make the painting vibrate with feeling. It’s not hard to imagine her with a brush or a pencil in hand, moving across her rectangular grid with quiet intention—indeed, that’s likely why she identified not with minimalism but with abstract expressionism, relying on the gestures of the hand to tell the story of an emotion. Unlike my problem with the sky—which resisted representation—Martin dispenses with mimesis altogether. After all, why paint the sky when the sky itself is a stand-in, when you can paint the feeling you get when you look at the world and realize there’s so much beauty in it that you haven’t yet seen? Her paintings evoke subtle feelings, feelings that seem trite—like Faraway Love and Friendship and Gratitude. But they are real, they are felt. They are even, astonishingly, earnestly, the titles of her paintings.
The Agnes Martin painting that stays with me most is quite small, smaller than the works she’s best known for. It’s on paper, done in watercolor and gouache, and scaled about the size of a large drawing pad, maybe a little smaller—if I’d been really ambitious, I could have stuck it in my tote bag and stolen it from the Guggenheim. Unlike many of her other paintings, which are pastels, whites and grays or sometimes black, it is blue. Not the blue of the sky, or the hazy blue of the mountains, which is bright and achy with cyan undertones, but a rich, lapis-lazuli blue, a marbled blue with a tone of violet in it. This is a material blue, a touchable blue. It fills the whole square and even spills over in places: her brush has strayed over the outline. But it isn’t evenly painted—the watercolor collects in places, forming wavelike, swirling shapes, and the white of the paper shines through where the paint is most thinly applied. Inside the square, also, a gift: a grid, done in black ink, and inside each square, again a gift, a white dot of gouache. The crinkling of the paper is evident under the paint, the material yielding to the way it has been marked, and the painting is alive with beauty and profundity, each moment in it slightly different from the next, and as a whole somehow larger than the sum of its parts. I think it is one of my favorite paintings in the world. In it, Martin has captured the longing I feel when I think of the blues of distances I cannot close, and in putting it somewhere where I can see it, has closed the distance. Somewhere in there, too: a little joy, tempering all that wanting. It soothes my anxieties about replication, about what I fear is the ultimate failure of communication. For that’s something I’ve always worried about in art—that I keep making things that don’t mean what I want them to mean.
Taos is a small town. There’s not much to do except ski and eat green chiles and watch commercials about pills designed to alleviate the constipation caused by opiates. I was there to write. I was trying to write, to close that gap between life and interpretation. Mostly, I sat at the desk I had set up and thought about the distance I had put between myself and the life I was trying to escape, and it seemed to me that home, so far away, had become blue, too. I missed it terribly. But if you are someone who leaves, then you must always be leaving, because to stop leaving is to stay. The space between staying and leaving is called longing. I had wanted to leave the one place I knew, but that meant moving toward the horizon, toward the blue sky and the blue mountains, and now that I was nestled in their foothills, their colors so earthly to me, I didn’t know what was worth making.
I thought a lot about that Solnit essay, driving down the highways, our truck swallowing great distances as we sped toward a horizon that never seemed to come any closer to my comprehension. When my traveling companion asked where I wanted to go, I always pointed at the bluest mountains. I wanted to be inside that heartbreaking lapis-lazuli blue, not stuck down here with the mortals among gray-green sage bushes and dusty-red ground; I wanted to be both there in the place and able to behold its beauty at the same time. I wanted to feel the way I feel standing in front of an Agnes Martin painting, where if you stand back you see one thing and if you get close you see another, and all it takes is leaning forward to fall into the details of how it’s made and what it says. Of course, you already know by now that I never got to the blue place, that the world keeps turning and the horizon keeps rolling just out of reach no matter how many exits you miss. When I got to Taos, I wanted the land to remain fantastic and cool, but get up close to anything and the light has to change.
One evening, as the sun was setting, I watched the stars come out—pinpricks of light that filled the sky like a saltshaker overturned. At night, you don’t really have to think about the way sun scatters and makes everything blue; there are still lots of things in the world, but you can’t see all of them. I went outside and looked up, pointing out constellations to myself—Big Dipper. Orion and the Pleiades. Cassiopeia—at least, I thought, it was Cassiopeia. It was so dark, you could see the stars between the stars, and even the darkness had a richness, and I never wanted to let my eyes adjust back to electric light, back to the world where everything had a shape, and a form, and a name.
Agnes Martin’s Untitled (1965) was published in the monograph Agnes Martin, from Distributed Art Publishers.
Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.