In response to the first wave of British Alpine mountaineering, the British art critic John Ruskin famously argued that the Alps were better appreciated from the valleys than the peaks, suggesting that climbing represented a desecration of the ‘cathedrals of the earth’. Since then, the scope and scale of leisure based engagement with mountain environments has vastly increased. The world’s mountain regions are more and more characterised by built infrastructure, commercial development, linked industries, complex networks of routes, trails and trajectories, data fields, communication channels, as well as by a multiplicity of real and virtual records of participatory interaction. In short mountain experience has changed for us. It is no longer so remote and separate. It is no longer exclusively informed by a rhetoric of sublimity. Mountain experience has become more intense and immersive and mountains themselves have become less neatly separable from features of the modern world
This paper considers these physical and abstract networks, as well as the forms of experience associated with them, as a means of describing a different relationship to mountains. It approaches this topic, somewhat obliquely, however, through a set of mountain paintings in which nothing of what we would ordinarily expect to see of mountains is visible.
At first glance it is difficult to detect a relationship between Agnes Martin’s 1960s minimalist (or possibly abstract expressionist) paintings and the titles of the works, which often reference conventionally picturesque aspects of the natural world – ‘flower’, ‘mountain’, etc. The works take shape as meticulously crafted grids, notable more for their subtle and curiously embodied relation to abstraction than any sense of reference to particular beautiful or sublime natural things. Yet somehow – by both playing at and avoiding reference – the works establish a complex and evocative dialogue between minimal grid and ostensibly alien referent.
My focus is on the ‘mountain’ works particularly, and less with the details of these works, or what Martin may have meant by them, or how they were received within the 1960s New York art world, than with the questions they pose about the nature of mountain experience. In examining these questions, my interest is less in tracing a self-evident link between a minimalist aesthetic sublime and the sublimity of mountains than in considering less apparent – but for me more significant and affecting – layers of correspondence related to features of pattern, temporality and process. I argue that the interplay of repetition and subtle, almost imperceptible differentiation in the paintings engages with intimate aspects of mountain experience – the iterative pattern of breath and steps, the search for lines, the recognition of space as a macro and micro level field of affordance.
The paintings provide a means of thinking mountains differently – not as exterior realms of otherness, but as profoundly lived and imagined spaces, always already covered in real and virtual infrastructure – roads, cables, data trails, tendencies and lines of least resistance. I argue that long before the mountain is abstracted into a grid, it is already abstracted, it is already subject to a work of repetition and projection. It is always already more than it appears to be. I link this multi-modal conception of mountains and mountain experience to aspects of Martin’s ‘mountain’ paintings and to my own experience as a rock-climber and long-distance walker. This paper emerges in the sense of surprised recognition that I encounter in the paintings – they are not of mountains and yet they summon vital features of contemporary mountain experience.