The Agnes Martin Gallery at the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico embodies Yi-Fu Tuan’s concept of mythic space.
TAOS, NEW MEXICO—“Mythical space,” writes Yi-Fu Tuan in his seminal text Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, “is a fuzzy area of defective knowledge surrounding the empirically known.” The geographer elaborates on this point, noting that mythic space is an “unperceived field” abounding with “factual errors” that produce an “ambience of the known” as opposed to any definitive knowledge. “Though inaccurate and dyed in phantasms,” he continues, these mythic spaces are “necessary to the sense of reality of one’s empirical world,” fostering belief in the unverifiable.
The Agnes Martin Gallery at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, I would argue, is one such mythic place: a dedicated home for a series of minimal, open-ended abstractions created by an icon of 20th century American art. Captivated by its ineffable allure, I recently made my own pilgrimage from Denver to experience the space and its paintings.
Nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains—the southernmost sub-range of the Rocky Mountains—art lovers the world over travel to this small town in the Southwest to visit the snug, octagonal room outfitted with Martin’s paintings. And, according to the placard affixed to the wall outside the gallery’s entryway, “Scholars have compared the Agnes Martin Gallery to the Matisse Chapel in Venice, Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, and the Rothko Chapel in Houston.”
But what about this room and these paintings would prompt a journey to this northern New Mexico town? And why would art historians situate this place within a pantheon of iconic art chapels?
The room forms an octagon with each of the seven white walls (the eighth side is the gallery’s entryway) acting as a muted backdrop for a Martin painting. The artworks, donated to the Harwood by the artist (who was a Taos resident) between 1993 and 1994, are representative of her later work: a field of washed-out, blue-and-white horizontal swathes separated by thin graphite lines of varying weight. The seven paintings share an overall aesthetic resonance, but the compositional arrangement of each piece is unique.
The Untitled paintings—subtitled Playing, Lovely Life, Love, Friendship, Perfect Day, Ordinary Happiness, and Innocence—resemble views of New Mexico’s expansive skyscape punctuated with massive cumulus cloud heads. But Martin, in her poetic manifesto The Untroubled Mind, made sure to note that her work was “anti-nature.”
To the artist’s mind, her horizontal lines are more than cloud banks or landscapes. They extend beyond our phenomenological moment and into, as she wrote, “something that isn’t possible in the world.” And what is that something that isn’t possible? For Martin, it was “freedom from right and wrong” and “freedom from ideas and responsibility.” In other words, “freedom from the cares of this world / from worldliness.”
In the center of the Agnes Martin Gallery, four ochre-colored wooden stools designed by Donald Judd anchor the space in a cross alignment. From above, an oculus opens skyward, allowing natural light to pour into the gallery and frame Judd’s stools in a spotlight of sunshine. Otherwise, the white walls and hardwood floors provide a spare, clean, and rather innocuous setting.
Part of the attraction for art lovers, art historians, and fans of Martin’s work is the fact that, outside of the Harwood, only Dia Beacon in New York’s Hudson Valley and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City boast collections or a series of Martin paintings in this quantity. But this fact, as Tuan would claim, is simply the “empirically known”: “facts” that create a “context,” yet do little to explain why someone would respond emotionally, viscerally, or powerfully to a particular place and afford it mythic properties.
The answer to this question—if there even is an answer—might be found in another Tuan concept: intimacy. Later in Space and Place, the geographer writes: “Intimate experiences lie buried in our innermost being so that not only do we lack the words to give them, but often we are not even aware of them… [they] are hard to express [and] fleeting… their meaning so eludes confident interpretation that they cannot provide the basis for group planning and action. They lack firmness and objectivity of words and pictures.”
He extends this line of thought to “intimate places,” which he says are “elusive and personal” and “etched in the deep recesses of memory.” They yield “intense satisfaction with each recall, but they are not recorded like snapshots in the family album.”
Perhaps why the Agnes Martin Gallery and the paintings serve as a mecca for art lovers is because of the elusive, fleeting, non-objective, but ultimately intense moments they produce for and within the viewer: a brief and powerful encounter with the mysterious, the sacred.
I spent over an hour within the gallery’s confines, and my mind entered a meditative state—an intellectual and emotional restfulness which produced no critical thoughts or transcendent epiphanies. Afterward, I fretted that I did not meet the demands which the artwork and the room placed upon me.
I, of course, was incorrect on two counts. First, by Martin’s own admission, her paintings make no demands upon the viewer. She argued that “painters can’t give / Anything to the observer / People get what they need from a painting.” Second, she wrote, “This painting I like because you can get in there and rest / … / the absolute trick in life is to find rest.” To find rest, then, is ample motive; intellectual outcomes or profound insights, for Martin, were not necessary when experiencing art.
Perhaps in my rest, then, I entered the fuzzy apparatus of defective knowledge, which conveyed the ambience of an unperceivable field through the dyed phantasms of Martin’s paintings and the space. And that ambience facilitated an intimacy which, as Yuan writes, “glows in moments of true awareness and exchange.”
In the Agnes Martin Gallery, we rest inside the artist’s paintings. We foster intimacy and, maybe then, we glow.