“Of all the pitfalls in our paths and the tremendous delays and wanderings off the track, I want to say that they are not what they seem to be. I want to say that all that seems like fantastic mistakes are not mistakes, all that seems like error is not error; and it all has to be done. That which seems like a false step is the next step.”
– Agnes Martin
While working on our holiday card this year (2021), the newest member of my staff asked, what do all the letters and numbers mean? I diverted in a lengthy manner, because as the others in the studio knew, I was not entirely sure either. As she smiled in acceptance, I responded, “I know I didn’t answer your question”. I wanted to use one of the working sketches from a current project. Overlaid on a render, lines, notes, arrows, and numbers recorded the studio dialogue of space and form. Then, there was the freedom of drawing a holiday wreath but, I realized the wreath had taken on the nervousness and searching of the design flow beneath. The layers, exaggerated in the anxious markings of the wreath, reveal the exploration of sequence and series, a tension between the geometric series conceived in the mind against the visual affirmation confirmed by emotion. In this sense, in that moment of the process, drawing is speculation, letters are deliberation, markings are contemplation. The sketches are archaeological remnants of the striving for resolution, indicators of indecision; but also, the evidence of possibility, the intrigue of a pathway and the glimmer of something lyrical.
High altitude sickness is very real. In 2002, I found this out after a few long nights in the studio, scrabbling to get things together before the flight to Santa Fe from New York City. Some of you will know the elevation of Santa Fe and our ultimate destination, Taos, is over 10,000 feet. My wife was doing research on her doctoral dissertation and in the days of written letters, the painter Agnes Martin agreed to her request for an in-person interview. Even back in then, Martin was considered an iconic Modernist, whose seven figure works and museum retrospectives were regular news makers in the Art world. The idea of meeting Ms. Martin was thrilling for both of us. More directly for my wife, as a central figure in her dissertation research; for myself, to meet the painter that had influenced many in the then new European school of architects such as the firm of Hertzog & de Meuron. Abstraction, rhythm, and repetition made with the imperfection and irregularity of the human hand. I am not sure how much Martin’s writings elucidate her work. She, like many in her early circle, spoke of uncovering the spiritual, of being purely abstract in her work. I wanted to find the connection to the desert, the mountains, and the sky. These were all rejected by her as influences. Yet, how often does an artist’s words really help the viewer in understanding? The interpretation and contextualization of the third person critic, the art historian, seem more fertile and thus, the contribution of critical art theory. Even so, Martin’s work was compelling without any text, as I think all great painting finds a way of being.
“Let’s go for a drive, and take my car, it’s much nicer than yours, but you drive”. More or less, that’s what Ms. Martin said to me after having lunch at a local restaurant. She and my wife had been taking all morning, so lunch was a big break and I think going for a drive was a way to call it a day from all the talking. For me though, this was my chance to ask my own questions.
The three of us in a big Mercedes, driving literally for hours down the highway in a straight line. My head pounding and near nauseous from altitude sickness. I could not keep from thinking; austere, minimalist, infinite, the terrain must be an inspiration for the work. Ms. Martin each time, with every variation and shading in my questions said no, I just paint abstractions. The ride was becoming very quiet. After the first hour, I said, would you like to turn back? “No, let’s keep going a bit”. Hour two, the same response. Hour three, the same response. Her bigger interest for conversation was the baby in my wife’s tummy, how the pregnancy was going, the wonders of children and, how raising them would be tough. I surrendered to all the baby talk. My stomach slowly began to settle, the pounding in my head began to subside, the miles started to glide by a bit easier.
In her studio, Agnes Martin had these small pieces of paper. Numbers in sequence, with no apparent order, but enticingly close to something rational. I asked what she was working out on those slips of paper. She said she was calculating the divisions of the grid, but I don’t think that to be the case. I have worked out countless divided grids, for paving patterns, ceilings, drawing details and building structures. Those slips were not about the canvas grid. I also knew, I was not about to get any clear answers. But something else happens when you spend two days with a person. Something happens when you simply feel someone’s presence for a substantial block of time. So much was happening internally with Agnes Martin. The paintings are more than repetitive grids. Her searching for the inner world and the spiritual pulsates between the lines, in the field, at the edges.
I did not include many sketches in this volume, nor the rougher, early models. Most clients see a small fraction if any of these. In whole, those would create a volume many, many times larger. Elucidating would take too many words but also, architecture is in the end about built space and form. Even the photos that follow fall short and, though the topic of another essay, as Adolf Loos would argue for his own work, I too am glad the projects do not really photograph well. Each project though, had its own literal, and unique markings, sequences and series, dead end pathways and confused translations. Each project found in its site, or program, or aspirations, a structure amidst complexity and, a calm amidst dissonance. Like our interaction with a painting, we do not need to see the working sketches to feel a space. Because in the architecture of a home, we search to reflect who we are and thus, we delight in the wonderful tension between its rationality and its underlying emotion.