I first saw
the artist Agnes Martin lecture in 1982 in
Albuquerque. She said: ‘‘My paintings are not about what is
seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.’’ I
thought she was speaking directly to me.
It took me a year to find the courage to call her. I wrote out
a script of what I would say and laid my yellow legal pad with
the dialogue printed in blue ink in front of me.
‘‘Hello,’’ answered the plain, flat voice.
I couldn’t think of what to say. My heart began beating faster;
the silence continued. Finally, I read from my paper:
‘‘Hello, Ms. Martin, this is Susan York.’’
‘‘Oh, yes, hello.’’
‘‘I sent you a postcard for a show I’m in,’’ I said, following
‘‘Yes, I got it,’’ she said. ‘‘And I can’t decide.’’
Can’t decide? I frantically scanned the yellow paper, looking
futilely for the right words. ‘‘Can’t decide?’’
‘‘No. Can’t decide if you’re ready to be internationally recognized
or not. Won’t be able to tell that until I see the work.’’
I kept searching my page.
‘‘Well, uh, would you like to come see the show?’’
‘‘No, never do that.’’
I was trying to come up with a reply when she finally spoke.
‘‘You can come for tea,’’ she said. ‘‘At 3.’’
The next thing I heard was the dial tone.
The road to Galisteo cut across a wide mesa. In the distance,
layers of blue mountain ranges rested behind clouds, trees and
ancient petroglyphs. Agnes, in her early 70’s on that afternoon
in 1983, stood in the doorway of her house. Her short salt-and-pepper
hair framed red cheeks and blue eyes that sometimes
seemed to be on the earth and other times beyond it.
The small home resembled a New Mexico tract house with
a white generic interior. Everything was spare and tidy; three
rocking chairs in the living room and one picture that looked
like a Georgia O’Keeffe print.
As in her books, she spoke in absolutes. ‘‘Never have children.
Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything
that will take away from your work.’’
Susan York, is a sculptor who has exhibited in the United States and Europe. She teaches at the
College of Santa Fe.
Opening the door to her studio, she
said, ‘‘Never let anyone
in your studio.’’ It was a long, simple adobe building that
Agnes had built by hand. She had no electricity in there and
worked only from the morning until 3 p.m.
I was struck silent by a 6-by-6-foot painting composed of
horizontal lines and washes of gray. Did she tell me it was
geese flying, or did I dream it that night? Infinite washes of
gray paint held by graphite lines, the painting made me think
of the almost steady line of a child’s pencil meeting watery
She told me she wanted to preserve the work of the
Abstract Expressionists. She asked me about the Zen center
where I lived and had a studio. I had no way of knowing it
then, but for the next several years I would meet her nearly
every month for tea or dinner. I learned about the artist’s life
from her, long before I had found my own. I was just a few
years out of college, but I thought time was running out. ‘‘I
didn’t get my first show until I was 45,’’ she said, fixing her
penetrating gaze on me. ‘‘If I could tell you anything, I would
tell you that you have time.’’
Over the next decade, I continued making my art, but as
Agnes often told me, I was frustrated. Something was missing
in my work that I still hadn’t been able to grasp. She told me
she had once worked as a dishwasher, saving enough money to
spend an entire year solely in her studio. She thought I should
do the same; instead, I entered graduate school.
In my work there, I sieved powdered pigment onto the floor,
filling rooms with giant arcs and rectangles. Afterward I was
pleased to have nothing left but a bag of swept-up pigment.
When I met Agnes the following summer, she thought the
new work was ridiculous.
‘‘How are you going to sell it if it ends up in a garbage bag?’’
she asked in that flat voice that sounded like the truth. And in
fact, it was the truth.
But I knew this work held the missing piece: I realized that
I wanted to distill thousands of miles into a single inch. Today,
I cover whole rooms in graphite, rubbing the walls with my
hand until the flat black carbon turns infinitely silver.
My hand was covered in graphite when I heard that Agnes had
died. It was around this time last December, and I remember the
world became quiet.