“I say that I paint with my back to the world.”
In the museum that used to be a factory, along a river that was once a fjord, the first Agnes Martin painting I saw was Innocent Happiness. It had a wall to itself. It was acrylic on canvas, five feet square. White with four blue bands across it, each defined by faint lines she had drawn with a pencil. The light blue of stonewashed jeans, of sky with dissipating clouds. Even though I really wanted them to, the eight paintings in the Innocent Love series did not initially move me. The blues, yellows, and whites, with the occasional orange or pink—a palette similar to that of an Easter basket—reminded me of recent tank tops from the Gap and Target. The titles, such as Contentment, Innocent Living, and Where Babies Come From, seemed too sweet, out of touch. Most Martin paintings are untitled, so perhaps—not knowing exactly which pieces of hers would be on display—I was disappointed not to find the same neutrality. Just to spend two full days with her work, I had taken the train up from the city.
Or perhaps I was feeling particularly cynical. Israel was preparing to invade Gaza for reasons I didn’t understand; I was off Prozac, finally, and on fish oils; a large dark spot on my mother’s left temple had me worried. The night before, bored in my hotel room, I’d seen a documentary about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who famously lobotomized several of his eighteen victims to try and turn them into zombie sex slaves. (Slowly I said some of their names—Anthony Sears, Konerak Sinthasomphone—in hopes of conjuring some explanation for Dahmer’s heinous crimes. If not unknowable, it seems to me now, the reason is at least inexpressible.) I’d also been obsessing over the year 2100, when the pH of the ocean will have fallen to 7.7 or 7.8 and the earth’s population could be 12 or 27 billion. My nephew Hank, whom I’ve never met, will be 88 then. Looking at the titles of those paintings on the gallery sheet, I thought to myself: wherever babies come from, they need to slow down. Future whales won’t be content when their baleens don’t strain out enough to eat. Climate refugees won’t be innocently living in Canada and Russia. You and I are emitting blood carbon.
Future-tripping: I was at it again. Imagining, and blaming mankind for, a timeline that hadn’t yet been played out. It’s a tendency, though necessary for ethical decision-making and planting crops and grocery shopping, that takes us out of the moment. And it often involves the negativity bias, leading us to downplay promising developments and overstate possible threats, as recent research by Roy F. Baumister and others has shown. It keeps us, I think, from more regularly accessing “the perfection underlying life”—those are Martin’s words, pointing to the joy available to what she calls “the untroubled mind”:
At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life ever seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties and we think we will never lose it again. All this and a great deal more in barely a moment, and then it is gone.
In her writings, often fractured by line breaks as if poems, she emphasizes the joy that is always there, even though it may be covered over by anticipation or depression, like magma or a flowing aquifer hidden below layers of dirt, like the sun blocked by a prison wall. There is perfection in the mind, she points out, but inevitably imperfection on the rough canvas: “A work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present— / at the slightest hint . . . the work is alive.” Elsewhere she takes an extreme, startling stance that I treasure and that I question: “Responding with joy is the path and we should work and eat / with joy. The joy counts and nothing else does.” Standing in front of Innocent Happiness, I tried taking in the striped expanse—the ubiquitous joy?—but was distracted by floaters, the bits of protein in my vitreous humor that appeared when I was in second grade. (“I’ve never told anyone,” I whispered to my teacher, “but I can see molecules.”) The stark canvas background, with nothing to focus on, was making them stand out. In a vale of neither tears nor soulmaking, I fidgeted and picked at my eyebrows. Suffering and anxiety don’t count?
I paced around the empty gallery, scanning the other paintings in the series. I peeked into Blinky Palermo’s gallery of semaphores, breezed past Carl Andre’s sculptural installations, used the bathroom, drank a terrible latte, stretched in the garden, and came back. As I stood in the doorway to Martin’s gallery, I looked at Innocent Happiness twenty feet away and it looked back; it was glowing; well, it seemed to emit a pale light rather than reflect it, a light like that of a mid-morning foggy sky; the blue bands were like meltwater rivers on a glacier, on a very cloudy day. “I don’t paint nature. Or this life—I mean, on earth,” Martin said of her work. “It’s about what is known forever in the mind.” Even so, like a child who watches a cloud and sees a dragon and then a boomerang, I couldn’t stop myself at first from seeing natural features in the non-naturalistic picture plane, the concrete in the abstract. I walked slowly toward the painting. Road, river, horizon, cloud. Every time an association with the tangible world arose in my mind, I tried letting it go and, as a yoga teacher might put it, came back to my breath. Back to the snot in my throat and along my deviated septum, back to the sensation of my feet laced up tightly in my sneakers, in hopes that the painting would fully reveal itself.
Of course Innocent Happiness wasn’t about to open up like a tabernacle. Agnes Martin, who died in 2004 at the age of 92, wasn’t going to whisper any truths in my ear. They were—to use a feel-good spatial metaphor for something non-spatial—inside me. The painting was an invitation. It asked me, and the others who came into the gallery, to undergo an abstraction, just as figurative paintings ask us to vividly experience their sense data: smell the underside of the big, sweaty horse in Caravaggio’s The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, feel the dry grass with a crippled hand in Christina’s World. I was asked to undergo, with the entirety of my being, an abstract emotion merely represented on stretched cotton duck. Instead the emotion lives wherever abstractions live, where there aren’t protons or hellbender salamanders; the calming, stilling mind, independent of the brain, becomes aware of that place, begins to know that realm that’s not a realm—that’s like an empty stadium with its lights on, a cradle endlessly rocking though there is no baby and there is no time.
I wasn’t only standing before a painting or an invitation to feel, though. I also stood at a border between two conceptions of human destiny. There is Martin’s thinking, Buddhist and Wordsworthian and Emersonian, that sees us as essentially pure and good: life is worth living; we progress; happiness is possible, given enough solitude and discipline. And, from a mashup of other voices, such as Sophocles, Freud, and Les U. Knight of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, is the attitude that we’re dirty, enslaved, and blameworthy; we’re essentially a cancer feeding on the earth; life is not worth living; we are in hopeless stasis, or decline, and we must answer for our attendant crimes.
Both basic conceptions are very much alive in me, like a centaur, staggering and lost, whose human and equine halves are not quite integrated, who cries out for more ale and more wisdom. They inform my relationship to the past and the future; but they also, in front of a square painting on that mid-July morning, informed my experience of the unstable present moment. I thought about the sobering, unpredictable sweep of civilization, the value of which I’m not sure. We compose exultant symphonies but can’t seem to take a step without causing harm or taking offense; if desperately starving, I would eat the flesh of a dear friend and so would you. In a universe I did not choose to enter, with my white guilt and ecological remorse, my internalized homophobia and body dysmorphia and compulsive sexuality, can I feel innocent happiness? Have I ever truly felt innocent happiness? Or was it just some diminished form?
As if in answer, I thought of my mother, who is nearly seventy; for thirty-nine weeks one year, I floated safely inside her.
The Martin painting didn’t dissolve, but I began to pay less attention to it—
It’s earlier this summer, seven-and-a-third degrees north of the equator, and my mother and I are swimming. The water is clear, except for the nutrients that shine like bits of fish scales, and warm. She’s wearing my gray Sesame Street T-shirt to protect her back from the sun; her mask and neon green fins are early birthday presents from me; her old pink snorkel is in her mouth. We take each other’s hand. Is this the last day we’ll ever snorkel together? Will she be too weak the next time that we try? (The first was almost thirty years ago in Florida, in cool, murky water, to see a submerged statue of Jesus.) As if to say, “I love you,” my mother, not really a physically affectionate woman, squeezes my hand. There were years after college when we didn’t speak because I was so angry, when I didn’t want to be touched. I squeeze her hand. Fish surround us as I’ve rarely seen them before—striped silversides, electric blue anthias, sergeants, damsels, bluestreak cleaner wrasse, surge or sixbar wrasse, I don’t know which. Some of them, accustomed to being fed, perhaps, nibble at my armhair. We both point at the Titan triggerfish guarding her nest below; she might bite our faces if we get too close. There’s a large sea fan the color of pomegranate flesh. There are crinoids with their black arms reaching into the current. And juvenile bumphead parrotfish, adolescent Maori humphead wrasse, chubs, masked rabbitfish, and butterflyfish—raccoon, threadfin, longnose, bluelashed.
But lists of creatures can’t conjure the happiness I feel for a moment as we hold hands: I have a good relationship, after much turmoil, with my mother; she and I are breathing, swimming together, above a coral reef that is still very alive.
I let go of my mother’s hand. She swims off to deeper water, to join our guide.
It is not yet skeletal debris covered in brown algae, not yet infested with jellyfish, this ecosystem often called the rainforest of the seas. But the beauty is to our left. Most of the coral to our right has been leveled by crown-of-thorns starfish, which can eat sixty-five square feet of it in a year. They’ve devastated much of the Great Barrier Reef. I see one specimen, looking like a dark catcher’s mitt with huge burrs in it, on the edge of a lovely area of scroll and staghorn corals. My happiness falls away, the quasi-innocence. I dive down to cover it with rocks, a surprisingly effective way to kill it, but its body is angled enough that they fall off.
Even more concerning are the high water temperatures have already begun to bleach some of the coral here. Coral bleaching has largely done in the reefs of Florida and elsewhere; coral species that I saw frequently as a child in the Keys are now critically endangered. I come to a large expanse of staghorn coral. Most of it is a deep lavender or creamy orange—it is stunning—but some of the coral is bone white, and El Niño this year is supposed to be bad.
I couldn’t look anymore. At the staghorn coral in my memory or toward the painting. I sat on a museum bench and held my head in my hands, as if resting after a strenuous game.
In my mind’s eye, to comfort myself, perhaps, I am back in the water and look above the staghorn coral, living and dying, toward the underside of the ocean. It is a mirror. A flowing, distorted mirror, refractive and reflective, as if liquid mercury were given a plane from which to reflect back the world. To abstract the world. Name one tragic or ordinary thing that wouldn’t look beautiful in that quicksilvery mirror. Neither my retina nor my bathroom mirror are less truthful. Whites, purples, oranges, and yellows overtake one another, give way to one another, eddy and blur, in a wordless song of color. And blue is there as well, the blue of the sky above, and the white of a passing cloud. If it were all in a frame, you would never guess you were seeing, in real time, the reflection of a coral reef under grave threat. You’d think you were looking at a living abstraction—one utterly responsive, like a mood ring, like octopus skin, to a consciousness that is yours and not yours, huge beyond reckoning, that doesn’t take sides, of robber baron and monk, caretaker and undertaker, nomad and homesteader, of lumberjack, grandmother, and hero. The underside of the water above the coral is an outright lie. It tells the truth.