I like to visit art museums in every city. Topeka or Florence, Poughkeepsie or New York, I search for small and large possibilities for seeing new art.
My interest isn’t doing something local. Though every collection differs, each holds some of the same artists or displays similar sorts of paintings and sculptures. I want to see what part of the world’s store appears there.
And I want peace. A friend once described the vertigo he feels drifting from room to room staring into windows that don’t open to the outside. He said if he stood still enough and close enough, he might fall through them.
I feel just the opposite, strangely grounded.
Mrs. Holt’s grandmotherly demeanor matched her house—neat and still, past the excitement of children and fit for visiting instead of staying.
My father, a doctor during the day but a devoted visual artist, didn’t trust the school to teach me art and sent me to Mrs. Holt’s once a week for instruction. She assigned color wheels and scales of shade, landscapes stolen from photographs, and still lifes already arranged when I arrived.
I’m not sure how old I was and recall little of my work. What I remember is routine. At the same time each week, I handed over a wet page, rehung my shirt worn backwards, carried my materials to a sink in the laundry room, and rubbed my brush on a bar of soap until it gave up its pigment. Then I rinsed and repeated until brush and soap knew no color. I waited in a sitting room to go home, penned by shadows of growing dusk.
Picasso said painting is “Just another way of keeping a diary.” I suppose it would be if drawing were a regular part of life and notebooks filled with every reproduced leaf, building, and face you met. But few approach representation so casually. Fidelity requires dedication and skill difficult to attain. Most of us leave it for artists, hands so practiced they’ve eluded thought altogether. We witness the divinity that visits them.
When I paint, the last stage is removing tape protecting a strip surrounding the image. Exaggerated swoops and careless lines stray onto the masked area, and it’s challenging to see the finished picture until the tape disappears.
My work is abstract and depicts nothing readily recognizable, but sometimes when I pull the tape away colors and shapes seem to drop another inch, the depth of their soupy combination apparent at last. Then what seemed nonsense becomes something.
Once, when I lamented I couldn’t mat or frame more paintings, an art teacher at our school circled the white space with his index finger and said, “What do you call this?”
“You’re so neat,” he said, “but even without the clean edges, the paper has to end somewhere. You always have a frame. That’s what keeps your picture here.”
Self-Portrait, age 16
Another art teacher scolded me for taking the beginning drawing class I start today.
“You aren’t a beginner,” she said, “you’ll be bored. You’ll waste the teacher’s time.”
Maybe. After so many hours of holding brushes and pens, they feel like the distal point of a tentacle, the greatest length my mind can reach. Yet, as a doodler, it’s my imagination that stretches. My eyes don’t see the way I’d like because I’ve kept them half-closed too long. I’ve cultivated inwardness that’s accepted the room I occupy and kept me finite. I want to see the wider world.
During a free afternoon while I was traveling, an old friend met me at a museum. His twins came along, and my friend and I tried to catch up on our lives as they orbited us, wheeling away from him to take in paintings and move on.
Finally frustrated by their impatience and the relentless pursuit it necessitated, he gave them an assignment—in every room they were to say which painting they’d like to buy, which they’d like to see on the living room or bedroom wall at home.
They saved their imaginary money in some galleries, but in others they fought over which painting to own. One liked the colors, but the other hated the figure whose feet were too blocky and all wrong. One saw a galloping horse among the intersecting arcs and lines, and the other called it “Scribble-scrabble.”
His junior art critics knew their taste, and my friend and I stopped talking to play their game. When they couldn’t agree, they asked our opinion. They listened, nodded, and marched on, hands linked behind their backs in serious deliberation.
I inherited my love of museums from my father. He gave tips on where to go, which collections included paintings and artists I couldn’t miss. But we didn’t go to many museums together. The one time I remember, I wandered behind him as he stared into landscapes bathed in dark, shellacked dusk or modern pieces proud of their bright affronts.
He looked at art the way he ate, with personal deliberation hard for any observer to bear. In both, his business was absorption, and that meant making it his before he took it in.
Sometimes, when my wife and I go for walks after dinner, I see into the windows of neighborhood houses and spy the art that hangs on their walls. When a large dramatic painting presides over the whole room, aesthetic voyeurism sweeps through me. I think, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live with that?”
My son is a skilled and practiced artist, and sometimes I feel like a weak link between the generations before and after me. Still, I’m grateful I understand his art talk and am happy when he looks with respect and approval at something I’ve created.
I wish I’d done the same for my father. Though I admired his watercolors and felt second-hand pride at the prices they demanded, I gave up the art lessons he wanted for me. We weren’t both artists while he was alive.
After he died I discovered painting again as a way to commune with him. Even now, twenty years after his death, I’m sometimes sure he’s telling me what to do, pitching advice to lead me from corners I’ve painted my way into.
Trips to museums with my son are some of my favorite times. We don’t talk much, but a lot goes unsaid.
Jackson Pollock saw himself as a sort of medium, believing it his job to find the life hiding in every painting. “I try to let it come through,” he said, as though that life came far ahead of the artist.
I understand that reverence. Even back in Mrs. Holt’s sitting room, I recognized the gravity of the artist’s rites. I sometimes sense the leading edge of revelation. Even when the wave doesn’t quite reach me, I love seeing the signs of its withdrawal, the evidence of beauty in full tide.