writer, artist, scholar, cultural critic, queer theorist

The Martin Cross

A. W. Barnes

In June 2014, I began a textile project I called "The Martin Cross," based on an untitled 1960 painting by Agnes Martin. The idea was to replicate the painting in cross-stitch and overlay it with a text from Ovid’s tale of Philomela and Tereus in Metamorphosis. The Martin painting is 12” x 12” — which is unusual for her body of work, most of which consists of six-foot square canvasses. I was intent on reproducing the dimensions of the 1960 piece as closely as I could. This would involve making over 55,000 stitches in a linen cloth—the Martin painting is on linen—with a grid that was too small for me to see without magnification. I thought that it would take me 6 months to complete 

I first saw an Agnes Martin painting at Dia:Beacon in their warehouse gallery in Beacon, New York in the spring of 2005—six months after Martin had died. I was immediately taken by her painting “The Rose” (1964): a boned-colored oil on canvass with a graphite grid laid overtop. The painting looked like a monochromatic oil on canvas, typical of Abstract Expressionists like Ellsworth Kelly, but more subdued and calmer. The grid consisted of hundreds of vertical and horizontal lines that looked perfectly rendered, almost mechanical. Standing a foot in front of the painting, I stared at the grid, which seemed to shift and move on the canvas, as if the painting was organic and the cells in the grid were responding to my presence. It was this symbiosis of the calm façade and the active grid—the balance between the peaceful and the energetic—that spoke to me in a way no other work of art had before. 

In 2012, Arne Glimcher published Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances. I bought the book and poured over the plates of her paintings, the reproductions of Martin’s journals, and Glimcher’s recollections of his many visits to Martin’s studio in New Mexico. On the cover of Glimcher’s book is the Martin painting that I decided to reproduce in cross-stitch—“Untitled 1960.” The canvas is painted a dark blue with eleven vertical graphite lines spaced evenly apart, creating twelve columns. There are 84 horizontal lines. In order to stay within proximity of the dimensions of the painting, my cross-stitch reproduction would contain 72 horizontal lines. There is a black border around the entire field. The vertical and horizontal lines in my reproduction produced 864 rectangular bars. Except for the first and twelfth columns, at the beginning and end of each bar in the Martin painting, she has inscribed an upside down “v” in two swift strokes—a symbol that I know as an editor’s insert caret.

Looking closely at the Glimcher reproduction, it seems as if the blue field of “Untitled 1960” is not monochrome. Instead, it appears as if the blue paint in the upper left-hand corner is darker and then fades to a slightly lighter blue in the lower right-hand color—an ombré effect that was either intended by Martin or is a product of the shadow from the lighting when the piece was photographed. Regardless, I intended to include this ombré effect in the cross-stitch, 

Rather than stitch a monolithic blue field, which I thought would not capture the texture of the Martin painting, I mapped out a scheme to create the ombré effect of the Glimcher plate. I would use five gradations of blue from the DMC catalogue of threads—the company whose cross-stitch threads I would use—in 12 combinations from Very Dark Baby Blue (DMC #803) to a Medium Wedgewood (DMC #3760). Each thread consists of six plys. For The Martin Cross, I would be using three plys to created 25,920 ‘x’s that would recreate the bars on the Martin painting. In order to create the ombré effect, I had to separate each ply and recombine the plys to contain the right color combination. I began in the upper left-hand corner using three plys of the first color—Very Dark Baby Blue—but then removed one ply of the Very Dark Baby Blue and replaced it with one ply of the next color—Medium Baby Blue (DMC #311)—and then replaced two plys of the Very Dark Baby Blue for two of the Medium Baby Blue. After stitching a patch of the project, I would again switch out one ply and replace it with the next color, and so on until I finished up the blue field with three plys of the last color—Medium Wedgewood. 

Rather than reproduce the carets that were in the Martin painting, I decided to inscribe a text, one letter of the text would replace one caret—there are 1,848 carets in the Martin painting. For the text, I used the story of Tereus and Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The Ovidian tale is one of kidnap and sexual assault, and a woman’s determination to tell her story through tapestry making. Rather than inscribe the tale using the Latin alphabet, I translated the text into a resemblance of the semaphore alphabet because semaphore consists of only two vertical and/or horizontal strokes; i.e., the positions that sailors hold their flags to signal to another ship. This way of stitching Ovid’s tale was more conducive to the linen grid. 

This layering of translation—from Latin into semaphore—appealed to me because it captures the layers of story-telling that are part of the Philomela tale—she did not write out her story in the tapestry but rather rendered the sexual assault through visual representation. It also captures my interest in overdetermination and the metaphysical, the layering upon layering of meaning and making. 

I finished "The Martin Cross" on May 4, 2018, almost four years to the time I began the project.