On the Grid: Plain Weave, Crosswords and the Paintings of Agnes Martin


Plain weave is the simplest of weave structures. Warp and weft alternately interlace, forming a tiny checkerboard pattern. Plain weave is elegant, strong and wears well. If unadorned with a surface pattern, there is no right or wrong side. In its simplest form, when the warp and weft are of equal weight, tension and spacing, all the threads are equally visible. It is a model of harmony and balance. It is also the underpinning of the more elaborate overshot weaves–plain weave is the grid underneath the floating pattern that holds the whole thing together. Plain weave is incredibly versatile–variations in yarn weight, fiber content and spin, spacing and tension create infinite textural possibilities. Vary the color in warp or weft and you have stripes, checks, plaids.  One of the most interesting possibilities of plain weave is called color-and-weave, in which various arrangements of color in warp and weft create intricate patterns–equally effective in black and white as in color.

Ann Sutton, Structure of Weaving (color-and-weave)

The designing of color-and-weave patterns is often done on that other elegant and deceptively modest substrate–graph paper:


A piece of empty graph paper is simplicity itself yet it provides a way to sort and work out a lot of very complex ideas. Like plain weave, it provides a jumping off point, gives us a stable, reliable background to build on.


Weaving charts have a lot in common with the crossword grid. Another backdrop, this time for words and associations, not pattern and color. A good crossword clue will set off a chain of memories, associations and retrieved scraps of information–as you fill in the answers, the grid changes and shifts, the answers form their own unique pattern.


Thinking about the ways we perceive, design and visualize patterns brings to mind the work of Agnes Martin, whose entire oeuvre since 1961 involved the magical intersection of horizontal and vertical lines. Large or small, these paintings have a monumental grace. There is an expansiveness to her work, a sense of completeness, stability.

Martin said: “my paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, not anything–no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.” In her work, the patterns interlock–viewing one section, you see the whole. Her grids are anything but static. Martin’s canvases are always somewhat rectangular, so whatever grids they contain are thrown slightly off balance. Her grids and patterns can evoke textiles–stitching, quilting, pleating–and particularly weaving. Many years ago, at an exhibit of Martin’s work, I was standing in front of one of her large paintings, a luminous grid in soft blues and browns. I stepped back to see what happened when I moved a bit further away, and a man came and stood in front of me. To my extreme delight, he was wearing a wool sports jacket, woven in a subtle plaid in exactly the same colors as the painting–it seemed as though a piece of the painting had popped into another dimension. The man was loudly complaining to his companion that it was a painting about nothing, it was just a bunch of lines. He was oblivious to the magical connection between his jacket and the painting and, sadly, completely unable to see the serenity and power in the beautiful painting in front of him.

Agnes Martin, Starlight, 1963

Agnes Martin, Starlight, 1963

Recommended reading:
Agnes Martin (Dia Foundation)
Agnes Martin: Recent Paintings 2000

Agnes Martin by Barbara Haskell, Anna C. Chave & Rosalind Krauss
In Pursuit of Perfection: The Art of Agnes Martin, Maria Martinez and Florence Pierce by Timothy Robert Rodgers

One Response to “On the Grid: Plain Weave, Crosswords and the Paintings of Agnes Martin”

  1. I finally began to understand Martin’s appeal. It’s mostly escaped me but this essay is very illuminating.

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