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 her ‘mountain’ works particularly, and less with the details of these works, or what Martin may have meant by them, than with the questions they pose about the nature of mountain experience. While there is a self-evident link between a minimalist aesthetic sublime and the sublimity of mountains, my interest is in layers of correspondence that are less iconic than phenomenological – related to features of indirection, pattern and performance. I argue that the interplay of repetition and subtle, almost imperceptible differentiation in the paintings engages with intimate aspects of mountain experience – the iterative inhalation of breath, 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, data trails, 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, walker and artist. I consider particularly how my own work alternates between literal interaction with outdoor spaces (mainly mountains) and gestures of apparent distanciation, involving indoor practices of writing and computer programming. Rather than regard these as entirely separate fields of activity, I argue that close engagement with mountain environments summons abstraction in the same manner that the computational line summons the lived step.
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 complex networks of routes, trails and trajectories and are increasingly integrated within wider data and communication systems. Via these means, 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.
- it is not actually a binary choice between sublimity and immersion, they are linked in complex ways. There is an interplay between them – a capacity both to make externally visible and experiential.
- I was lost early morning on the Larapinta trail. I had a headtorch that normally worked to follow the track, but crossing a dry creek I missed a less visible exit and became lost. Usually crossing creeks there were yellow metal trail markers. I struggled to see them. So I had to sit for several hours until it became light before I could re-find the trail. The whole place changed when there was no longer a track. Every boulder and stunted tree had a new resonance as I tried to read clues into an obscure landscape. Before I sat down and waited, I made a number of efforts to walk 50m or so in particular directions in the hope that I’d stumble across the track or a trail marker. I had only my footprints in the sand and rough memory of dark clumps of bush and lines of boulders to find my around – and everything became increasingly obscure. I imagined that I could see the lights of Alice Springs glowing in the distance, but not sure what I was seeing. Dawn eventually rose from that direction… What was apparent here, was the attempt to recognise signs – to follow the concrete abstractions that make navigation possible, but instead there was this amorphous and confusing darkness. In some ways this was one of my most intense and memorable experience on the trail – when I lost it altogether and when time, and my predictable motion across the landscape – was suspended. Confused space, suspended time.