A ‘shimmering thing at the edge of analysis’: Figure/ground and the paintings of Agnes Martin | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 2, Issue 1
  • ISSN: 2052-6695
  • E-ISSN: 2052-6709



My specific focus is the relationship of figure/ground segregation in painting to the pressures of impermanence, non-differentiation and non-duality. Figure/ground assignment depends on the mind’s ability to establish, process and stabilize clear contrasts or dualisms within the visual field, which then become the basis for all cognitive binaries. The flat, framed format of painting makes figure/ground assignment a central issue. Normally, when we perceive an image we also consign a background to imperception, but blurring out of fine detail, softening of sharp edges and contrast sensitivity frustrate this perceptual activity, undermining the distinction between presence and absence, and bringing to light an undifferentiated foundation. I discuss the physiology and phenomenology of vision, and research in the neurosciences, and focus on the paintings of the American artist Agnes Martin (1912–2004) and the challenge they pose to stable figure/ground assignment. Within her work I identify the shifting shape of non-normative subjectivity.


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