The Distance Between Us and the World


Clouds over New Mexico

A few weeks ago I wrote Sense Making, a post that praised those who take on meaning in smaller, more intimate chunks.

When you are caught in the middle of a maelstrom, it is difficult to see the larger patterns forming. While dodging the barrage of fire hoses indiscriminately blasting information at us every day, I am heartened when I encounter an alternative approach, one that steps me away from the involuntary meaning making that the mind just can’t stop being about. These small “oases” of sense-making slow things down and offer an intimacy with information that is similar to the way a landscape is transformed when you get out of your speeding car and actually walk it. Something personal takes place.

In that post I highlighted One Bottle columnist Joshua Baer and art historian Suzanne Hudson who wrote a book about just one painting by Agnes Martin, Night Sea. Not surprising (thanks to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon* no doubt,) more examples have emerged, particularly in reading responses to art.

Maybe it is just a personal weariness with standard issue art criticism. I have, after all, been making, looking at and reading about art for most of my life. In my own viewing—and likewise reading about someone else’s experience—I have recently started searching for something other than an erudite, context-respectful, historical perspective.

What matters to me has changed. I now seek language that steps outside the Mandarin orthodoxy, the cooly detached perspective of art criticism. Sometimes the words I respond to take a cultural/social bent, or a scientific one. Sometimes it is just someone who is good at language who is willing to share their personal and authentic encounter with a work of art. That is the kind of writing that speaks more powerfully to me these days.

A recent piece in the New York Times, The Art at the End of the World, by Heidi Julavits, is an account of a family road trip to see Robert Smithson‘s emblematic Spiral Jetty in Utah. Julavits is a wonderful writer who takes the somewhat challenging journey that I have made several times. Her account is not an art-world denizen reporting on Smithson’s earth art, but a personal and thoughtful adventure involving a remarkable art monument.

Another good example is by Larissa Pham in a recent issue of the Paris Review. Pham is both an artist and a writer. Her piece, Agnes Martin Finds the Light That Gets Lost, is a pleasure to read.

Pham begins by describing her own early studies of how to command the variations of blue and to actually paint the sky. “You could paint all sorts of things but it was harder to convey the feelings you had about them,” she points out. She then quotes Rebecca Solnit from A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us … This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

Pham’s response:

It’s not only the sky that is blue in this specific way. The light that gets lost is light that travels across distances, that gets scattered across that expanse of space and splits into color, like a burst of confetti or the spray of a waterfall. It’s the light that comes to us from afar, so places very high and very far appear to us as blue, too: places like distant cities or mountains or even the flat lip of a foggy horizon at sea. But that blue—that blue isn’t stored in those distant locations. And it isn’t stored in our eyes, either; we can’t carry it around with us, even if we buy thousands of tubes of cerulean. It’s in the distance between us and the place we observe, and that gives it its particular poignancy, because it’s a product of circumstance, never of active creation.

This is a thoughtful prelude to looking closely at the nuances of blue in this small, unassuming piece by Agnes Martin.


Agnes Martin, Untitled. © Estate of Agnes Martin/DACS. Published in Agnes Martin, a monograph from Distributed Art Publishers.

Pham doesn’t just keep her focus within in the confines of that wondrous picture plane. She takes us with her as she explores the rugged and surprising landscape of New Mexico. Blue is present throughout her personal account:

When my traveling companion asked where I wanted to go, I always pointed at the bluest mountains. I wanted to be inside that heartbreaking lapis-lazuli blue, not stuck down here with the mortals among gray-green sage bushes and dusty-red ground; I wanted to be both there in the place and able to behold its beauty at the same time. I wanted to feel the way I feel standing in front of an Agnes Martin painting, where if you stand back you see one thing and if you get close you see another, and all it takes is leaning forward to fall into the details of how it’s made and what it says.

More writing like this, please.

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*The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was named in 2006 by linguist Arnold Zwicky to describe a syndrome where a concept or thing you just found out about suddenly seems to crop up everywhere. It is the result of two psychological processes: First, the selective attention thjat happens when you are caught by interest in a new word, thing, or idea; Second, You unconsciously keep an eye out for it so it shows us again. That second process, also known as confirmation bias, reassures you that each encounter is further proof of your impression that the thing has gained overnight omnipresence. Our poor brains! They can’t help themselves.

3 Comment

  1. Louise Noël says: Reply

    Hello! I appreciate reading you. However, as I get older, I find that the colour (grey) of the police you use is getting more difficult and less pleasant to read. I would suggest changing for a more contrasting colour. Thank you for your attention.

  2. deborahbarlow says: Reply

    Louise, I am sorry you have difficulty with the tone of the font on the site. I am using a standard WordPress template, but I will do some research into darkening the color. (I am not a web designer, just piggy backing on someone else’s design.)

    In the meantime you might look into some options on your monitor. Increasing the size and contrast is available on a number of computers, and perhaps that would help as well.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Lovely photo of New Mexico. Talk about blue…

    And thanks for mentioning the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. I hadn’t known someone had pinpointed and described the reason for it. So true!! I remember when I learned I was pregnant…suddenly, I noticed so many pregnant women around. Where had they been hiding? (In my un-aware consciousness, where I had not been paying attention to them).

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