Imagine a large, luminous field of creamy white, with a subtle, uneven grid formed by folding. Slight flecks and smears of pale brown, like mistakes, dot the surface with a delicately irregular pattern. It’s the work of Agnes Martin, but not one of her well-known canvases. Our meeting in Taos was a birthday present from my husband: lunch with the great 20th century artist. I was still in art school, late to come to the cool-kids party at age 36, and thrilled and terrified to meet my heroine. Afterwards, it was a split-second impulse to grab her soiled paper napkin, soy sauce-stained from her frequent daubs of our shared Asian steak and broccoli. “I will make something from this,” I whispered to myself as I followed her away from the table. I watched her large and solemn form amble out the door ahead of me and felt momentarily horrified by my betrayal. I had brazenly appropriated the slobber of this distinguished human being, the leftovers so profoundly personal, the DNA of the world’s most famous living female artist, the evidence that she, like me, puts her gesso-stained pants on one leg at a time.
Agnes Martin died four years later. I have not looked at this thing, this humble trash destined for the bus boy’s gray plastic bin, since I stuffed it into my pocket that day, but the power of the relic and its image reminds me of my rash theft all in the name of art. The napkin still sits in an envelope where I placed it that day, inside a sketchbook filled with drawings and notes on a high shelf in my studio, where it quietly mocks me, reminding me of my guilt but also of an enduring need for truth and beauty. Of course I never did make anything from the napkin – it was already made.
Rachel Perry Welty is a Boston-based conceptual artist. She uses fruit stickers, restaurant take-out containers, messages left on her answering machine, medical records, toys, and email spam as materials for her art. She is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York. (Photo of Perry Welty: The Weekly Artist)