Last year, I made Valentines with my four year-old using sheets of watercolor paper ripped into smaller rectangles and Crayola watercolors. After he quickly made his way through several of the mini-paintings, making only a few marks on each, I asked him if he wanted to add any more to some of them. He said no and that he’s the artist.
“You can’t struggle with the artist,” he said. “Anyway, who could be more artistic than the artist?”
I thought of these wise-child words when I read Lauren Camp’s poem “Ego as Deduction (Agnes Martin Speaks)” in Image 99. The poem as a whole seems to say, “You must not struggle with the artist. Leave room for the artist. Leave room for mystery.”
The poem begins, “You must not say I saw the sunrise.” The poem speaks in the voice of painter Agnes Martin here, entreating reader and view to make space for abstraction in art, allowing room for ourselves to enter into an artistic experience without always reaching for biographical context or figurative correlation. The poem goes on to describe what we might think of as a hypnopompic experience—the state during waking when the mind drifts and visions may appear:
“In bed/ past the time of the rippling/ light, lying in piles/ of sheets, dreaming what was dearest,/ the charm of a word/ waking me with a grid that’s never/ as occupied as worry and hours. What if undone/ my mind is resting the burdens/ of need?”
Camp’s poem stylistically performs what it explores: Artistic concision as mystery; mystery as leaving room for transcendence. Writing about Martin for Hyperallergic in 2005, Edward M. Gómez explained that though her paintings came to be associated with Minimalism, Agnes Martin “considered herself an Abstract Expressionist.” Gómez explains that “Martin herself observed, ‘My paintings … [are] about merging, about formlessness, … A world without objects, without interruption.’” In fact, he notes, “Martin was an admirer of Mark Rothko’s hauntingly beautiful, floating rectangles of saturated color,” and she may, “in effect, [have] beat him at his art-as-tool-for-transcendence game.”
Camp’s poem murmurs to us from just waking, “You must not interfere and godspeed the alternate/ ways the empty so thoroughly means.” Leave room for the artist. Leave room for the mystery. Leave room for the murmurings of Self.
–Joanna Penn Cooper
You must not say I saw the sunrise. In
past the time of the rippling
light, lying in piles
of sheets, dreaming what was dearest,
the charm of a word
waking me with a grid that’s never
as occupied as worry and hours. What if
my mind is resting the burdens
of need? Eight times the repeat of desire
and it feels right as a blue and a
pencil. You must not
say I structure the line as a range
of mountains, a luminous body
of sky, and the negative sky unbroken
to prayer. You must not interfere and godspeed the alternate
ways the empty so thoroughly means.
— Lauren Camp
Rain Study by Agnes Martin via WikiArt, fair use
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.