Horror Vacui: Politics of Filling the Void

As is custom, my oldest friend sends a parcel of unnecessary trinkets each December in celebration of the holidays. This year the package included, much to my disgust, a DIY-produced adult colouring book, outlines of sad-eyed puppies and ironical positive affirmations populating its pages. Part of her inscription reads, “Hope your Christmas is ____________ (you fill in that blank and rock it!)” For obvious reasons there is a psychic block to filling in the space above the line, however the ideological minefield occupying the space between all the other lines becomes the more daunting and anxiety provoking of the two imperatives.

Skipping over the first task, approaching the second in the expected manner by neatly applying a chiaroscuro treatment within the preordained contours of a fluffy little dog’s ass, I soon become frustrated and turn to a more radical approach, obscuring the platitudinous message of healing with perpendicular layers of rainbow-coloured bands. The grid provides respite from the irregularity of the figurative outlines, and although the two structures are not so unlike each other – there are lines, and there are empty spaces between said lines – the competing systems produce diametrically opposed psychological effects.

Invented in the late 19th century, colouring books have been lauded by psychologists, including Carl Jung, as therapeutic instruments. More commonly used to keep children occupied and augment traditional pedagogy, they have recently gained popularity among adults seeking reprieve from the stresses of daily life. The mindless blocking-in of predetermined forms is marketed as the ultimate means for fostering tranquility, pacifying an elusive inner turmoil.

In speaking of the countless acts of vandalism to which her work fell victim, abstract American painter, Agnes Martin explains, “people can’t stand that those are all empty squares”1, proving that the solace of the grid is not universally felt. Martin is no doubt irritated by this narcissistic audacity, as it stands in stark contrast to her own storied propensity for self-control. Haunted by the traumas of youth and afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, Martin was uncompromising in her pursuit of egolessness, in her life and in her art. She adopted the schema of the grid to make manifest her Taoist ideals, because it allowed her ego to dissolve within subtle geometries. Though she acknowledged its beauty, the lack of symmetry found in nature was disquieting for Martin, and the grid functioned as a means for distancing herself.

Unlike contemporary attendees of colouring parties, Martin was not looking to escape nature, insomuch as she found comfort in getting beyond it, embracing the emptiness of her geometries rather than fighting to fill them2. The fear of and impulse to fill empty space, termed horror vacui in visual arts discourse and philosophy, stems from our shared reluctance to confront the anxiety inducing absurdity of our existence. Martin’s modernist project places her on the other side of this fear, leaving the colourers to their own devices.

1 Haskell, Barbara. Agnes Martin, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992), 140.

2 Martin, AgnesOral History Interview with Agnes Martin, (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. May 15, 1989), 30.