She begins it. In August of 1914. Twenty-seven years old, she is, to most an old maid and has only recently returned to South Carolina to teach. Flowers, bones, and skies you enter like a room are years away.
The first letter must travel the hundreds of miles to New York, to 291. She is asking to subscribe to his publication Camera Work. The letter receives no written response, though her subscription must start. The second letter though, the one sent in January of 1915 after he has seen her work for the first time—"finally a woman on paper"—is where it really begins. She asks him to describe what her charcoals said to him. She wonders if she "got over to anyone" what she wanted to say (his is the opinion she values most, though she only admits this in letters to other people).1
Her sentences are isolated by the long, ribbon-like dashes that will punctuate their correspondence. Voids on the page, ravines of ink into which everything and nothing must fit. Not unlike her drawings.
His first words back to her: "What am I to say?" This from the man who would hold court for hours at 291, his gallery and the cradle of American Modernism. This from the man who would roam and rage from one topic to the next—art, politics, religion, the nature of reality—yielding the floor to none.
Joy is what he tells her eventually, as he continues his letter. Joy is what she has given him. Her abstractions have brought him closer to her. "Much closer."
They have met only twice, briefly.
He is fifty. Married. He stands at the center of the modern art movement. She is not yet thirty, virtually untrained, from a farm in Wisconsin. What you could see, you owned.
She writes back on February 1 to tell him of her astonishment at being understood. "It's such a surprise to me that you really saw them." She was only trying to express herself. Something she can do in painting, though not in letters. "Words and I are not good friends."
Still, she wants to talk with him and won't be "completely outdone by a little thing like distance." Her letters will make the journey to him, even if she can't. There are few in her life who understand her choices, let alone her art. She will write to him at one point that "no one ever wanted me to do any of the things I wanted to do—and did—from the shoes I wore to the way I combed my hair—my friends and opinions—was all wrong—" But he has seen her.
At the 1913 "Armory Show" in New York, Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" introduces Americans to modernism. Show-goers are scandalized. They have no reference for what they see, no way of articulating the planes and lines before them, no way to bring the forms into a narrative they can hold onto. Only a few understand that modernism drives for the belly of the viewer, the gut, the formless, nameless, pulsing center of a being. Such a connection, by definition, is wordless.
He has no words either. "Perhaps because I am dead myself," he adds. "And words, just words, are so terrible. Rather by far a living aching silence." He tears up one letter to her, tries again.
In September of 1916, she moves to Canyon, Texas, to take a job as the head of the art department at the West Texas State Normal College. Canyon, Texas, population 1,500, sits on the edge of the Llano Estacado, the Staked Plain, one of the largest mesas or tablelands in North America. The ground slopes so gradually in the Llano Estacado that it is undetectable to the human eye.
It is absolutely flat.
The plains of West Texas are the remains of an ancient sea.
She writes in her first letter to him on September 3, 1916, "The plains—the wonderful great big sky—makes me want to breathe so deep that I'll break—There is so much of it—I want to get outside of it all—I would if I could—even if it killed me—"
Like him, the plains get her. Mostly in their emptiness, their bigness. The winds blow, the sun scorches, the glare blinds, but she loves it all. Nothing, nothing, nothing. She cannot get enough of the nothingness, "the holiness of it."
It is blank, like a canvas, like a piece of stationery, like a word unsaid.
Her teacher, Arthur Dow, wrote, "It is not the province of a landscape painter to represent topography, but to express an emotion, and this he must do by art."
The first room she rents, she despises. Wallpaper crowded with roses. This for the woman who will spend days mixing the exact shade of white for the walls of his gallery. She moves, then moves again, finally residing on the top floor of a clapboard bungalow four blocks from the college. Even though the house is in the center of town, she will never feel part of Canyon itself. The plains are what make her feel she has come home.
"You are more the size of the plains than most folk," she writes him.
She imagines coming to New York to see him but realizes she never would. "The letters have been so fine—I would hate to spoil it—so they couldn't be anymore." Letters that come almost daily, some of them forty pages in length. Letters that he prefers to write only when sitting outside—"to write indoors to you seem[s] absurd. Impossible." Letters that she composes while still in bed. Letters they carry in their pockets for days before sending. Thousands of pages over a lifetime.
And then the letter on September 26, 1916. She begins with the dark. "Isn't dark curious—sometimes it is still with you—sometimes you are just alone—and it's way off—sometimes it chases you—it is such an enormous—intangible—awful thing when it chases you on the plains—"
She is not only writing about the dark. She is writing about him, about them, about the headaches that render her paralyzed and keep her in bed with the shades drawn.
She lies, she says. To him. To herself.
She wants "to touch someone I like—then maybe I could be still."
He is "understanding."
She writes, "Please don't—for a while—write me those letters that always knock me down—Sometimes—your letters are so much yourself." Some mornings she dreads their arrival. "You understand," she continues, "I am always glad—and you know how much I like them—It's that it's too much—I've got to get quiet—some way."
To her friend Anita Pollitzer, she confesses that his letters are "like too much light—you shut your eyes and put one hand over them—then feel round with the other for something to steady yourself by."
He has written of Lake George, the lake in upstate New York where his family has a home, and the "turmoil" of the trees. He has told her, "It's a great privilege to be given the opportunity to look into a soul like yours—I feel it roaming through space and at night—"
More importantly, he has seen her drawings and paintings. She has sent him several rolls to do with as he pleases ("They are as much yours as mine"). He will only be able to "glance" at them, as though he risks blindness in looking. One glance, he assures her, permits him to see more than others would see in months of looking. Once glance reveals "all the powers of the night."
Stop, she tells him. She is scorched by his gaze like the scrubbed plains around her.
Palo Duro Canyon lies twelve miles east of Canyon, Texas. The canyon is one hundred miles long, twenty miles wide, and eight hundred feet deep. It is the second largest canyon in North America, the Grand Canyon of Texas. Formed by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River that winds for miles along the virtually flat Llano Estacado only to fall dramatically off the Caprock Escarpment, the canyon is known for its fantastical hoodoos and colorful walls. Layers of rock rise from the red canyon floor in yellows, lavenders, and flame. She would say of the canyon: "It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color."
Some days, she walks the distance from the town to the canyon through the oceans of sage, tumbleweeds, and scrub. The flat, the flat, the flat and then "a slit in the ground."
"I haven't any words for it."
She walks to the rim and eats dinner alone, watches the cattle move through the canyon, the clouds of dust at their feet. "Way off on the edge of the earth against the sunset were a lot of cattle in a string—[I] could see daylight under them—Like a dark embroidery edge—very fine—on the edge of the earth—"
She scales the sides.
"Merciless" she names it.
Not unlike the townspeople. Who cannot understand her dress, her talk, the way she wears her hair. There were problems from the start: "I feel it's a pity to disfigure such wonderful country with people of any kind." Then later, "I feel like such a misfit." Within months, she is "in a pen." She is an unmarried abstractionist living in rural West Texas. She is a pacifist. She entertains men in her apartment. She reads books written by Germans. She rides into the desert with married men and flirts with her students. Her paintings look like nothing anyone can name.
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