When it became clear that the pregnancy wasn’t viable, the doctor asked what my holiday plans were, a banal question suddenly loaded with urgency; and when I told her, she simply recommended self-termination at home before I left. In my bewilderment and grief, it didn’t even occur to me to change any of my plans. I followed through with the medication, passed the pregnancy in a bloody torrent in my bathroom between watching Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life with my mother, packed my bags and went to Texas two days later, where I had planned a post-Christmas road trip to the Big Bend region with my husband Dakota. He was already there, visiting college friends and distant family, and met me at the airport with a giant stuffed sloth. Who could blame him, given that wildly insufficient gestures are the only ones available at times like these? How could he bring me back to himself with empty hands?
We decided against telling his mother what had happened. We barely had the words to discuss it between ourselves. The time passed in a blur of watching Jurassic Park, Christmas cartoons, and episodes of Family Feud, drinking wine in the hot tub in the backyard, grazing on the leftover taco dip and turkey. I counted the minutes until I could look out the window of the rental car onto the landscape of the Texas Hill Country around Austin and then into the desert as we headed towards Big Bend. I wanted to be as silent as the bluebonnets crumpling into the cold ground, as the bands of rocks that held a million generations of crumpled flowers.
Before we went to West Texas, we stopped at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The vast canvases inside are often described as black, but appear, at least to me, to be a muted violet that can look rosier in some lights and more indigo or gray in others. The space inspires great quiet, not quite reverent but something more than a vaguely enforced silence.
I hoped I would feel something at the Rothko Chapel. I’d wanted to visit there even before everything happened. I’d seen one of his paintings in San Francisco— Untitled (1969), one of his last— a few years before and been moved to tears. Part of his Black on Gray series, it consists of one black and one gray field, the black atop the gray, perhaps slightly larger, so it looms in the distance like a tunnel at night. Some art critics have likened it to a moonscape, contemporaneous as it was with the first moon landing; some claim that that it represents artistic evolution, away from his earlier, more vivid color field paintings; still others maintain that the somber colors point to Rothko’s deepening depression and disillusionment. Whatever it was, it reached me there, and I felt deeply my choice to vacation alone and also a close connection to everyone around me, strangers all, and even to Rothko himself.
And Rothko had killed himself, of course, not long after Untitled (1969) and the rest of the Black on Gray series. Still, before that painting in San Francisco, I was sure that there was so much in those bleak fields, that Rothko still had much to offer. What had possessed Rothko— who possessed the strength of the dissident and the proletarian immigrant, and the artistic vision of, as poet Stanley Kunitz put it, the shaman— to take his own life? What could have finally defeated someone who knew so much about emptiness and formlessness, had mastered and illumined it for so many years?
I had my answer, though, by the time I saw the Chapel, four years later: Nothing.
We spent a night in Austin and the better part of a day driving through and out of the Hill Country to West Texas. We turned off the last thoroughfare that could be described as a main road in Alpine, a town of a few thousand people and the home of Sul Ross State University, and headed for Terlingua, hardly twenty minutes from the border with Mexico and nestled between Big Bend State and National Parks.
Shortly afterwards it grew dark — true dark, full dark. There is nothing along the road to Terlingua but scrub and rock for eighty miles: no gas stations, no streetlights, no billboards. There is so little that there are signs announcing upcoming trash barrels. There is nothing to look at in that darkness, not even the smartphone screen: there is no signal for well over an hour. There is only Willie Nelson and Ray Charles singing “Seven Spanish Angels,” their voices like a wrinkled hand that smooths the silence over you, as you drive into the heart of the Big Bend.
Terlingua was, until fairly recently, an actual ghost town: once a hotbed of cinnabar mining, it was largely abandoned after the munitions works of World War II shut down. It’s been revived as an artist’s colony and hipster tourist spot, dotted with tepees and Airstream trailers equipped with wifi and rainwater tanks. In the night, after eighty miles of absolute nothing, the arid hillside illuminated with red Christmas lights and energy-efficient LEDs rose to welcome us.
We unpacked the car, storing our gear and the smattering of groceries we’d picked up at the Target on the edge of Austin in the tiny house we’d found on Airbnb. We changed into pajamas; I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and we went out on the adobe patio to look at the stars. With a near-total absence of light pollution, we saw the glittery swirl of the Milky Way, the prodigal ways in which light is scattered across the sky. How could the universe be so full and yet still have so much empty space, so much room for the light to shine in the darkness?
In the Terlingua Trading Post the next day, I bought a small Dia de los Muertos Nativity scene: a bony Mary and Joseph welcoming a similarly skeletal infant Jesus in an electric blue barn. I said it was because we didn’t have a Nativity set, and that might have been true, but it was also a small, quiet, sick joke: a birth without flesh, without life as we know it. The barn did not have doors; it was open to reveal the Holy Family and the space surrounding the new life that had come to the world in Jesus. But the life had come from the place beyond the grave, without flesh or softness. This is the place the faithful surround on All Souls’ Day: a place full of the life beyond life, but nevertheless a grave, a well, a void.
You will find another road, from Big Bend to Marfa, like the one from Alpine to Terlingua, so devoid of evidence of human life save for the road itself that one has visions of one’s bones being gnawed upon by javelinas or turkey vultures. I was convinced that something absurd but disastrous— spontaneous combustion, collision with a meteorite — would happen to our rental car and we would die, alone but for each other, in the West Texas desert. On one hand the possibility made me anxious, and I drove carefully. On the other, it seemed so likely and unavoidable that I could only embrace it.
We were so close to the end of America in the town of Presidio that we received text messages welcoming us to Mexico. We drove through a Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint, a rust-red archway housing a glass booth not unlike those for parking attendants, but we never had to prove our avowals that we were American citizens; presumably Dakota’s slight Texan accent and our white skin served as passports enough in Trump’s America. And we arrived in Marfa, a town fifty or sixty miles from anything except a CBP tethered aerostat radar site that looks like a malevolent zeppelin hovering just above the ground in the desert a few miles outside town. We stopped at a burrito joint half-full of lost hipsters and half-full of cowboys in camo who looked like they’d just gotten out of their deer blinds.
We went to the Chinati Foundation, the home of many of the works of artist Donald Judd, including his massive Fifteen Untitled Works in Concrete in a field outside the former Fort Russell. We stepped into the field, a symphony in brown in late December: umber and desert sand along the ground; bare trees in kobicha; long grasses in the distance waving tan and smoky topaz. The sky was soft gray, hardly lighter than the works in concrete themselves, which are essentially hollowed-out boxes spread out across the field. Tall and wide enough to accommodate three adults, they suggest playground equipment, albeit a rather stark kind, in warmer light. In images on the Internet they stand in wide expanses of light beneath blue skies and cast broad shadows along green ground. But there was no such color in view.
There are pictures from that day, before and after I stood among the works in concrete. There are pictures of us at Big Bend, in which I’m wearing the same sweater I wore on the plane, smiling in spite of the chill; there are pictures of me laughing in front of Prada Marfa, an installation about thirty miles down the road, a false storefront replete with shoes and handbags eternally closed for business. But there are no pictures of me from the field, surrounded by Judd’s concrete box-like frames.
Judd, though he claimed to hate the term “minimalism,” was strongly associated with that movement, as Rothko resisted being called an abstract expressionist. Judd, too, had gone to Marfa from New York in search of something — or maybe nothing, since the landscape of West Texas in winter discourages one to wonder what may have once been there or what may be there again someday. Its harsh beauty firmly roots one in the present. Right now, there is nothing, it says. Look to the horizon — and you can, because nothing is stopping you. What is there in front of you right now?
I looked through the frames, concrete but cast in plywood that left its grained texture on the finished works. How much is concrete, and how much is air — the atmosphere, the horizon you see when you look into and through them? The space within them beckoned me inside, but the posted placards asked me to not climb. I stood just outside them and ran my hand over their surface, cold as the chilled ground. There was no yield. There was no expression of anything but the space they held, space into which I said without saying: I have lost something I can never get back. I don’t know what to do now.
The untitled works and the land on which they rested said nothing in return. They did not present a martyrdom or a resurrection; they did not reveal fabulous color or sensual form; they did not make me wonder if I’d been looking at something the wrong way. They did not sprout weeds or moss. They only stood open. They were only, resolutely, absolutely themselves. They did not try to be anything else.
You see them on construction sites, the signs that announce [Number] of consecutive work days without an accident. I should have put one up on the door of our apartment: [Number] of consecutive days without an emotional meltdown. There was a span of weeks immediately after we came back from Texas in which I was counting by hours. I remember those weeks claustrophobically, enclosed always in the walls of my apartment or between the sides of a subway car.
Anything could trigger one. It didn’t even have to be an especially wrenching episode of Call the Midwife (on which I did eventually impose a brief moratorium). It could be a garden-variety baby or toddler on the train; it could be the gentlest suggestion from Dakota that maybe we could stand to tidy up a few things. One night I wept for an hour, and cried myself into a migraine headache so bad I had to take the next day off from work.
When someone would ask me what was wrong, I kept giving an answer that was so strange that it didn’t even seem like I was talking: I don’t have any time. I can’t see the future. Remembering it now even causes my chest to tighten for a second, the way it did for minutes or hours when I was in the thick of this grief. I would sob so hard I couldn’t breathe; I would gasp for air like I had been running from something.
There was a place within me that was not fully my own, not fully under my control. If I reached up and inside to grasp something within it, my hands would come back with nothing but air, nothing but space. That which moved in that place was too small to see or hold. There was no letting it go”; I had to refuseI refused to grasp for it at all. I wondered if this was the space around which Judd was building his boxes, the space in which there is nothing to be seen or grasped, meant to be seen through, not seen.
One menstrual cycle passed, and then another. Nothing happened.
Eventually there was enough space for me to breathe, to think outside the walls of our apartment and the subway tunnels. We went upstate for a late Valentine’s Day weekend, to Beacon, conveniently located along Metro-North, possessed of a few decent restaurants and the Dia Beacon art museum.
There we saw Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis), which evokes first a bird in flight and then a crucifixion. The shards of glass lose some of their fragility in Smithson’s configuration, presenting ominously when amassed. And what is more ominous than the last of the dinosaurs, than the body of God Incarnate broken and paralyzed?
Michael Heizer’s negative sculptures North, East, South, West look like holes, but they’re made of weathered steel, and their precision-engineered shapes, with their clearly manmade lines, suggest the violence of humanity toward the earth, the tendency to quite literally dig our own graves.
And then there was Donald Judd, again, with Untitled (1991). More boxes, but this time in their original plywood, small and hanging on a wall, with red and blue backgrounds and crossed with more plywood inside— the Fifteen Untitled Works colliding with, say, Mondrian’s Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow. Now the boxes had something to hold, and somewhere to be: sheltered from the elements, no longer looking to defy them. Perhaps even Judd had given up on space in the last years of his life, had come to the end of his search for color and fullness.
We left Dia Beacon and sat beside the partly-frozen Hudson for a while. The trees above us and along the river were bare, and in the spaces between the naked branches bobbed ice floes that recalled the Map of Broken Glass. Winter was not yet over, my confrontation with the void still a standoff. But within the trees, I knew, lay the blueprint for another spring; between the ice floes ran the waters of the river, still giving life, still covering it; the denuded trees, the jagged ice meant, like the boxes, to be seen through, not seen. What comes after emptiness, after brokenness? Crucifixion; descent; diminution. Then: a thaw. A return of color. Space between the floating ice, filled with cold water.
We went to the doctor two weeks after everything happened and decided to wait, and let nature take its course for a while. Color returned. The tulips in front of our apartment building, always the last in the neighborhood to bloom from within the shadow of our buildings and the one across the street, indeed bloomed again, in red and orange and soft pink. If winter was minimalist, spring was post-impressionist and surreal: Frida Kahlo, in green and fuchsia and goldenrod at the Brooklyn Museum, the spread of cherry blossom and magnolia petals over the concrete.
Life comes back. Resurrection is real. But so too is the emptiness, the void. And that time and that space demand the viewer to bring her own warmth, her own meaning. They come from the blood and the tears, which in turn come from the place beyond grasping, framed by the hardness of the truth from which there is no escape.
The emptiness can end you, as it did Rothko. Or it can take you to the edge of a desert, as it did Judd, as it did me. The wind there will penetrate your layers of insulation, ask you questions you cannot answer. But there you can build boxes — first in which to shelter, then in which to store and house and hang with a swipe of color that will anticipate the next season. And the wind will blow you back, first to a frozen river, and then to a thaw, and then to a bed of tulips.
The emptiness will come. Sometimes it folds in on itself and collapses into black and gray. Sometimes it opens out to the sky.
ABIGAIL MYERS writes on art and spirituality from her home on the South Shore of Long Island, which she shares with her husband, daughter, and two cats. She has published essays in the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series, and her microfiction recently appeared in Heartbalm. Her poetry is forthcoming from Rough Diamond Poetry, Amethyst Review, and Unlimited Literature. She still blogs, for some reason, at abigailmyers.com.
Art: “Space Ghost” by Aleksandra Chechel, Acrylic on Canvas