A Feeling Between the Lines: The Anxious Influence of Agnes Martin’s “Writings”

Victoria Chang's "With My Back to the World," 2024 (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Brian Teare's "The Empty Form Goes All The Way To Heaven," 2015/2022 (published by Ahsahta Press).

The painter Agnes Martin contemplated language with a great deal of skepticism. Though she produced an impressive body of written work, mostly compiled and published for public consumption, Martin regarded language, as visual artists are wont to do, as a lesser form of expression. Words can allude to or approximate the sublime but never graze it like a brushstroke. “There is a wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put into words,” Martin wrote in Writings (1991).

At times, this distrust verged on hostility—a hostility toward the intellect (“the intellectual is death”) and the precise excavations of one’s inner mind. Some of Martin’s Writings was, in fact, dictated to a friend; in its introduction, her editor Dieter Schwarz notes that Martin herself regards the conclusive nature of what she has “written” with doubt. And, if language is a social tool for self-expression, per Wittgenstein, Martin’s hermetic lifestyle accorded her freedom from its daily use. She left New York for New Mexico in 1968, where she quietly lived until her death in 2004. Artists, Martin believed, should be left alone. Solitude is a necessary prerequisite for “an untroubled mind,” an ideal mental state for inspiration and art-making. An untroubled mind is also a quiet mind. Martin, a schizophrenic, was plagued by voices throughout her life.

Only painting offered her “freedom from the cares of this world”—from “wordliness,” pride, and suffering. “My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent,” Martin wrote of art she enjoyed. Her paintings, too, are famously placid and subtle. Graphite lines are gridded into shy smudges of structure, rigid and stern. The canvases are muted, but not without presence, inhabiting a state of speechless serenity.

Martin’s aversions to logorrhea were many, specifically towards writing about her art authored by other people. Her apprehension extended to exhibition catalogs, critical essays, and reviews, such that she refused a Whitney retrospective on the grounds of the requisite catalogue. Martin’s gallerist, Arne Glimcher of Pace, also recalled that she prohibited him from describing her paintings to potential buyers. He could only show the works. Retaining the paintings’ perceptive purity was a preeminent concern: Martin wanted people to respond to art without interference and interpretation. “Only the response [to the work] is real,” she wrote. “The work is preserved because of the response.”

So what qualifies as a response? For Martin, the ideal was pure feeling—“positive” or “happy” emotions. But would she regard a poem elicited by a painting as a legitimate response? Or would she deny it as a vain attempt at intellectualizing the ineffable? Two ekphrastic poetry collections—Victoria Chang’s With My Back to the World (2024) and Brian Teare’s The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven (2015/2022)—contend with the verbal-visual impasse central to Martin’s philosophy. Teare turned to Martin’s Writings during a period of debilitating illness beginning in 2009. Chang’s poems were sparked by a commission from the Museum of Modern Art in 2021 during a “very deep and long depression,” as she recounted in an interview. Perhaps it was no coincidence that both poets were independently grappling with enduring cognitive states that distorted their perceptions, dampening familiar conduits of thought when they arrived at Martin’s figurative door, drawn to the simplicity of her shapes and sensibilities. Chang’s and Teare’s poems, as such, are “inspired” by Martin, for whom inspiration could be found everywhere and nowhere at all. In the postscript of a short poem, Martin writes: “This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.” Published nearly a decade apart, The Empty Form and With My Back are transcriptions of what the mind, at its most vulnerable, knows. Gesturing to the futility and fruitfulness of language, the poets, under Martin’s aegis, search for a structure for the unsayable.

This is a familiar trope in contemporary poetry; poets often dwell on language’s inadequacies and ambiguities. But here, Martin looms between and within the poems as their uniting force, woven into the poetic fabric through borrowed titles and phrases. The title The Empty Form is drawn from Martin’s oft quoted lecture “The Untroubled Mind,” and With My Back is from a series of six banded canvases made in 1997.

In The Empty Form, which is organized in three parts, Teare writes about chronic illness, pain, and the patient’s desperate search for diagnosis—a doctor-approved “language” to identify and treat one’s affliction. He deconstructs the lyric line and the page’s spatial field to assemble together grid-like compositions, word-clusters that are choreographed to be read both horizontally and vertically (“to stop the work of the lyric / to stop the mortal thought”). Teare’s poetry can be traversed like a switchback staircase; the flight down the page is always manifold. The haphazard orientation of Teare’s “stanzas” and the fluctuating length of his lines encourage a contrapuntal approach to reading. The Empty Form thus reflects Teare’s addled mind (“if to imagine a larger form is to heal”) when thoughts surfaced in sudden, brief bursts (“why return again to / a limited vocabulary”). The poems are buoyant to behold, like delicate gasps of breath, and the imagery is diaphanous, fuzzy, and sharp as a barely grasped dream: “I lie on my back / pain is this verb / whose gist I feel / beneath my ribs / a statement / phrased as a question.”

For Teare, the grid functions as both visual and verbal scaffolding. If we think of a poem as a compilation of lines—each line being a distinct unit of thought—the grid dissects the line, simultaneously foreshortening and reorienting its logic and syntax. Disparate strains of thought are brought together and sectioned apart, coexisting in a diagrammatic composition that is more predicated on association than lyric (linear) logic: a constitutive “form [that] empties itself on its way to heaven.” Teare leverages the grid’s abstract nature to create a layer of separation between the body of his poem and his own body, much like how Martin tried to maintain a distance between herself and her work. In a 2017 interview with Chang, Teare said: “I was interested in complicating the analogy between the way we read the body of a poem and the way we read bodies. Often our culture posits a tacit analogy between the body of the poet and the body of the poem, with the lyric especially ‘performing’ the experience of the poet.” But most interesting is the gradual shift in the speaker’s relationship with Martin. He first refers to her by her full name, then “Agnes,” then “teacher Agnes.” In the third and final section, the speaker departs on his own journey: “let’s not be friends / let’s be companions / of the open road.”

Chang’s With My Back adopts a confessional demeanor, featuring diaristic, digressive prose-poems about depression, grief, womanhood, and language. Martin is referred to as “Agnes,” although the speaker’s mode of address is indirectly tentative and bashful. Rather than speak to Agnes directly, she frames her inquiry as a desire for knowledge: “I want to ask Agnes” is repeated to convey a rhetorical distance from the artist. Still, Martin’s presence is central to the poems’ unfurling logic. Her bestowed wisdom, even when inserted with little context, eclipses the speaker’s ruminations to become the poems’ most authoritative statements: “Agnes said that an artist must think the work is paramount in your life. I want to ask Agnes how to do this but I cannot move.”

Chang, too, is influenced by Martin’s grids, though she sparingly employs it as a technique of linear organization—disappointing, given how the grid gives form to some of the collection’s most evocative poems. In “On A Clear Day” and “On A Clear Day, 1973,” clusters of text are kerned apart into four-by-seven and four-by-twelve grids. There’s a striking visual tension to these poems, as the grid enacts an effect similar to that of an enjambed line, interrupting the flow of verse/thought with a rhythmic disjointedness.

Elsewhere, Chang plays with the visual shape of some poems, simulating Martin’s geometric forms. The lines of “Mountain, 1960” cohere into a trapezoid, and “Little Sister” uses dots in lieu of punctuation to separate clauses. “Wheat, 1957” is organized into four sections of text, separated by a cross-like space in the poem’s center. Similarly, an inch-wide blank space divides “The Islands, 1961” into two sections of text. But a majority of the poems are structured conventionally into unrhymed couplets or a single paragraph-like stanza spanning between fourteen to twenty-one lines.

Perhaps Chang aspired, in the long, punctuated lines of her prose poems, to replicate Martin’s flowing, hand-drawn marks. Even so, she recognized the dissimilitude of their lines and lifestyle: “Agnes believed in living above the line. Above the line is happiness and love. She said that below the line is all sadness and destruction. Last year, I moved below the line, into the yellow or the blue.” Rather than try to transcend the line, Chang in With My Back is entrenched in its disconsolate depths: “I’ve learned that the words are only poems if, when flattened into a line, the meaning is still there. In my need to know, I am surrounded by lines.” In another poem, the speaker concludes, “Perhaps all lines are lies.” To which Martin might respond: You’re the only one that can discover for you the meaning of anything.

Though Chang’s poems verge towards the surreal, the adherence to lyrical legibility creates a sense of catatonia. This is, in part, due to the speaker’s “depression,” a word written thirty-one times, such that “depression” loses its diagnostic weight as a medical condition, becoming instead a mere impression on the page. The frequency with which depression is invoked is less a problem (repetition is insistence, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein) than the nature of its recurrence. Here, its semantic and psychological potency becomes objectified; depression morphs into an abstract object that can be placed “in a picnic basket” or “rope[d] off.” How, then, should we think of depression? The speaker seems to recognize this verbal dissonance, admitting: “Is it possible to write down how we feel without betraying our feelings? Once I write the word depression, it is no longer my feeling. It is now on view for others to walk toward, lean in, and peer at.” Like her depression, the speaker seems to be stuck within the line, circling the paradox of language and melancholy like a fly orbiting an enclosed room. She thinks, wonders, and wants, wandering the muddied halls of her mind’s museum.

I struggled with this inconclusiveness, which deterred the collection from amassing an emotional momentum. I found myself wishing Chang heeded Mallarmé’s advice, cited in “Untitled #5, 1998”: Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces. Instead, Chang’s speaker mostly narrates from a position of observational distance. She stares out of windows and into paintings; she imagines how Agnes might complete a line; she counts Agnes’s lines and notices her dots. The best poems impart and sustain a hypnagogic mood of hollow uncertainty, as if one is waking from a dream with no resolution. Yet I wanted Chang to make larger associative leaps within her lines, to scramble up her static syntax to surrender to a greater depth of feeling. “This is the problem of imagination. It has no shape and comes for no reason,” the speaker says in “Friendship, 1963.” But Chang’s imagination appears to be boxed into a fixed form and abides by a staunch lyric logic. The problem, then, is not imagination but a lack thereof.

A prolonged emotive charge was most developed in “Today,” the only poem in With My Back not inspired by Martin, which takes its name from the series of date paintings by Japanese artist On Kawara. Written in short stanzas of ten-syllable lines, “Today” is a fourteen-page poem, reminiscent of Chang’s Obit (2020) pieces, that details the days before and after the death of the speaker’s father. The father’s slow decline is solemnized by the date markings, akin to a death diary rather than a postmortem elegy. There’s a devastating gravitas to the form. The wintry imagery is both brutal and stirring, conveying a numinous vitality that is often muted in the Martin poems.

In a recent interview, Chang confesses: “Language is so unsatisfactory. You can’t really ever get to the thing that you’re feeling with language.” This sentiment is echoed in the collection’s opening (and titular) poem, where the speaker declares: “This year I turned my back to the world. I let language face / the front.” Language is a Janus-faced mask the speaker adopts to recede from the world as both confrontation and retreat. Martin had a more dogged view of turning her back to the world. She meant a true and total detachment from society, responsibility, morals, and politics. A poem, however, can never truly retreat into silence, though it can invite it. If “the desire to draw a line is to ask a rhetorical question,” per Chang, With My Back is a collection of lines born from this impulse. Indeed, Chang poses many vague, unanswerable questions, which seem to anticipate or even invite silence in lieu of discourse. Chang’s language “face[s] the front” with reluctance, regarding itself with unresolved ambivalence. Language is said to be ruinous, misleading, elegiac, impermanent, immortal: “Some of us spend our lives trying / to pin language to the sky but language is the one that gets to stay.”

These lines allude to the internal drama of writing—as a performance of legibility in an illegible world. It’s a conundrum that Teare raises with more formal ingenuity in addressing the medically “illegible” nature of his undiagnosed body: the philosopher argues the verbal expression of pain / replaces pain without offering a description of it / the sensation of pain helplessly separate from language. Writing produces a layer of detachment between sensation (pain, depression) and language. While the sensation remains unspoken for, it nestles, as Martin writes, “wordless and silent” between the lines, aspiring towards a semblance of legibility.

In W. J. T. Mitchell’s 1997 essay “Ekphrasis and the Other,” he interprets ekphrasis as an effort at bridging the limitations of both visual and verbal mediums—that an image’s significance can be furthered via language, and that language’s limitations can be overcome with an abetting image. “The estrangement of the image/text division is overcome, and a sutured, synthetic form,” he writes, “a verbal icon or imagetext, arises in its place.” Through this interplay of text and image, the viewer-reader can better “see” a work of art.

With My Back and The Empty Form are, of course, strengthened when read with Martin’s works in mind (or, as I had done, displayed on my computer monitor). But Martin also benefits by association in postmortem conversation with other artists and writers. While she wanted to forsake the self for the painterly sublime, Martin’s personal mystique contributes to artists’ enduring fascination with her work. Nevertheless, Martin believed art could persist on the merits of beauty and wonder alone: “When they built the Parthenon, people responded to it and that response goes on forever and that’s the reality of the Parthenon and every caress goes on forever.” Martin may disagree, but I believe there’s an intrinsic linguistic element to this response. Every rhetorical response contains a caress: a candid gesture that reaches for a feeling between the lines.

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