I want to tell you something about art that I haven’t discovered yet. Or perhaps I have always known its presence in my life but never recognized its face until recently. Or perhaps the discovery happens in reverse, walking backwards, pushing my heels through the dark earth to land on something that I call art that I can stand on or for.
My first remembrance of art as object, as something to possess, as something unbearably precious was my mother unwrapping a hand blown piece of glass that was nested inside a box within a box within a box. In her eagerness, large crumpled wads of newspaper and heavy brown paper were strewn over the kitchen floor. This mess was so uncharacteristic of my mother that I drew in closer to see the prize that held so much power. I remember how her fingertips turned suddenly elegant and individual as though they could reach and grasp with a new specificity. Something I knew I had never received from her, not when her hand was in my hand to cross Front Street, not when her hand clutched the tortoise shell comb to detangle my hair after a shower. When she withdrew the glass sculpture out of the final box, she looked deep within it, turning it this way and that with a measure of solemn inspection. There were deep purple bursts of color that swirled in rhythmic layers throughout this object which my mother only later named as a sculpture. She told me, Not only a sculpture but a sculpture by a famous glass blower. I knew without being told that I was never allowed to handle it. I thought to myself that maybe I could stroke its smooth sides.
It rested on the glass coffee table in the living room, above the lemon yellow wool carpet. I remember looking at it out of the corner of my eye as I swept down the hall after school towards my bedroom. It haunted me. There was something prophetic about it, as if inside the glass, inside the galaxy of tiny bubbles and the magnetic flower shapes that looked like violets there were messages to be found. And if I could see them or read them or understand them then I would be known and therefore made visible. Something I deeply feared. This was my first awareness that art, something that lived for its own sake, something that was breathing and sweating on that glass coffee table, could strip me. Instantly. Completely.
Over the years my mother had other art pieces delivered, in crates, enclosed in glass, on metal stands. An ancient Greek hammered helmet, a 6’ by 8’ painting of a shimmering red dot in a field of black, a statue of a man and a woman, each missing parts of their bodies. When they arrived, there was a fuss, an unveiling, a trial to find the right spot, the perfect level, and the resting place. I used to imagine their source, who’s hands, who’s brush, who’s imagination. I wanted to connect the object with its creator, My mother often gave me the story, the descriptions of large warehouses in New York City and the man who designed scaffolds, like arms, to hold his sculpture. The woman who was obsessed with the color red after she witnessed a death as a child.
As I got older I would wander the house, standing in front of the paintings, the sculptures, the drawings. I would scan my body for that feeling of being reduced, of being peeled back. I wanted to shake myself loose from myself. Already as a teenager I was listening for the wolf. I would lay in bed and practice deep breathing, reviewing the images of the day, the boys that I wanted to speak to and didn’t, the ride home on the bus flipping my ponytail as though I was one of them.
My mother’s house filled with her ‘beloveds’ strangely kept me company. The ancient helmet spoke to me of its owner and the battles waged , of its weary return home, of the blood stains and sweat on its rim. I wanted to learn from this art on the walls, on the shelves in the library, on the front stoop. I never wanted to understand them. My mother wanted to not only understand them, she wanted to make them important. The only measure I could find was, Does this make me feel something? The red dot on the black field made me feel irritated. The man and woman sculpture made me feel that loss of an arm or a leg was unexpectedly beautiful, powerfully beautiful. And from that wave of newness, my mind had room to soar. To think. About presence and absence, the space between things, like the branches on the elm tree outside my window, the slates of the louvered beige curtains, the spaces between the strands of my hair.
I wanted this art to make me more alive. I needed it in a way I never realized. I needed it to stay alive on the walls, to not give itself up or fold onto itself. My mother kept her pieces alive, in part by giving them a place to be proud, in part because she always passed them whispering I see you. And to this day I can’t explain why some art disappears or goes in hiding. Is it because the people have left, that essential appreciation has waned? Is it because it never had enough life force, enough primal ‘isness’ to sustain it in the lean years of time? Does art require a seer, a viewer, a reader?
I want to tell you something about art. I don’t know exactly what. I can tell you I need it more then ever. My own circulation requires it. My eyes and ears and hands ache for it. I even dream of it; of feet spinning in dance, of hands flinging paint on windows, of my own face tilted upwards.