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Dorothea Rockburne

AGNES MARTIN WAS A VISIONARY. In the late 1950s, after moving to New York, I saw some of her paintings at Section Eleven, an annex of Betty Parsons Gallery. These works struck me, though they were not quite resolved, as representations of a demanding and compelling inner life. I remember rectangular canvases, no grid, with white shapes rendered in a thin wash overlapping hauntingly pale yellowish forms. These early efforts evoked the Eastern quietude I’d seen in the work of Kenzo Okada, and they have rarely been shown since.

By the late ’60s I was regularly seeking out Agnes’s work; perhaps I recognized my soul in some aspect of it. Bykert Gallery, where I was exhibiting at the time, presented a series of her amazing etchings in 1967, and we were in several group shows together in the ’70s. At some point I learned that she had moved from New York to Cuba, New Mexico, and had kept in close contact with Richard Tuttle, who was also a friend of mine. In 1971, I was in San Francisco (working on a series of etchings titled “Locus”) when I got a phone call from Richard, who told me he was visiting Agnes in New Mexico. I mentioned that I was planning to make a trip to Albuquerque to see my daughter, and he suggested I stop over at Agnes’s place. I jumped at the chance.

When I arrived in Cuba, Agnes and Richard picked me up in front of the post office; Agnes was driving her white pickup truck. I climbed in to sit between them and noticed that wedged between the seats near the gearshift was a shotgun, which Agnes pulled out as we approached the adobe house she’d built herself. She began shouting and shooting! Cows had wandered into her garden and were eating it.

Agnes’s 1973 survey at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia included Night Sea, 1963, one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen: a pencil-thin grid of gold leaf overlaid with a dark blue wash, breathtaking in its language. The underlying gesso emphasizes the texture of the threads of the canvas, revealing the work to be an act of intimacy. During a lecture she gave at the ICA in connection with the show, she alluded to her psychological battles while working, which she elsewhere framed in terms of listening to voices. I understood. I still understand.

Dorothea Rockburne is a New York–based artist.