When I counted them later while taking stock, it would seem like I had had a lot of dates in the museums – from someone I’d known in Beirut to someone I’d just met at the Art Students League, but in context these dates were so rare as to be outside the picture, for I was in the museums more than once a day, for many, many crucial months, and in memory I was almost always alone, seeing art works and my life in challenging and harsh and soft new ways.
I stood in front of one of the Met’s Hobbema’s while an escorted group came through and they were being told about how every leaf on the trees in Hobbema’s 17th century forest looked real and brought up a gentle summer day – this scene in very dark woods that I very gradually, realized were not at all safe and gentle and summery. I found myself complaining to myself about myself – how could I, a man so attuned to nature, I asked myself, how could I not respond to this moving evocation of a placid summer day in a clearing in gentle summery woods?
Right behind the Hobbema there was a door leading to a high balcony surrounding a bright and airy courtyard, many stories high and lit with real light from a sweeping skylight and a wall of glass that brought in the park from outside. A place with benches upon which to sit and contemplate in the middle of this airy courtyard what seemed to me light-hearted bits and pieces of popular art – an actual Greek revival bank façade from somewhere in the Middle West, colorful if rather nice-nice works in Tiffany glass, and an amusing carved church pulpit with circular steps and on the top an extremely tight-ass angel heralding some version of something with a trumpet. In this imaginative courtyard, which felt like a holiday place, I felt better. But then I went up on the balcony again and back in that door to old Dutch paintings, and I stood again looking at the summer day woods scenes, and I was no closer to being able to enter what I still thought must be the immensely appealing Hobbema world.
That night and sporadically for succeeding nights my dreams took me to those 17th century woods in the Dutch lowlands – those woods that in dreams were so very dark, so deadly dangerous, woods in which I became lost - woods that I knew now once existed in lowland Holland, but now for me were morphed with the dark high altitude woods of my often dangerous childhood in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.That place that in memory, as memory was meant to be in my family, was supposed to the mold for perfect summer days.
I kept returning now to the Hobbema’s because they had something I had to see – something that took me to dark places that lay deep in my heart and mind, so deep down they had nearly been forgotten, and now I was back there – pictures on the wall of museums taking me back. For the darkness and the danger were so clearly there now. And it was so freeing now that I could see it. Matisse’s Piano Lesson did this for me too – that woman hovering above the imprisoned child at the piano, whose child’s glance nonetheless goes to a smooth bronze woman, one of Matisse’s own small sculptures playing a role in his painting – the naked bronze girl as warm as the hovering woman is cold.
And then I hunted up the Arshile Gorky’s that had deadly sexuality – especially his non-representational paintings of exposed thorns and razor sharp edges, genital shapes of domination that are a diagram into the necessity for suicide – far more so than his early painting in the Whitney of his mother in Turkish-held Armenia, shown close to when she died of starvation in the genocide time.
Then I was drawing and painting myself, studying around the clock, and I tried to do a black, threatening lizard-like figure of what I thought I would find more threatening than anything else – a scaly black armor-wearing stranger who would stop me and torture me. But this lizard figure morphed into an enigmatic woman with a sweet but also strong face and luscious bare shoulders, the woman appearing from some strange place as I painted, appearing standing high above a perhaps mythical landscape that I found myself portraying, a landscape I was not aware I had ever seen before, just as I was not aware there was such a smooth bare woman who would, like a lizard, appear when I felt under threat. And she was standing, so smooth and bare, high above this unending landscape of jagged mountains and deep gorges with zigzagging waters rushing through.
This was when I was not writing because my writing had become so predictable, if saleable, that it was of no use to me and, I knew, would be of no use to anyone else. In my writing in the time when I decided to stop writing,the scaly stranger would have been set in place so there could be no surprises - like something dead.
But then I began to wonder what might happen in writing if I just let what was here appear, let the scenes and the connections come, get out of the way of my art in writing as I was doing in visual realms.
But at this time I thought of all literary things with distaste – control things that were in the world of rigor and order and forced conclusions, so rarely in realms of art. In this time when life had never been better, so soon after life had seemed to be winding down – this time now. I was in and out of museums and galleries and then painting classes and life drawing sessions from the dawn to the middle of the night – coming and going to and from my one-bedroom apartment with a view over rooftops in the south, this apartment that I had turned into a studio, wide shelves added for art materials, everything removed from the walls except my drawings and paintings, my perspective studies and my color wheels, my anatomical diagrams and soft flesh pastels, the main bed removed to leave space for easels and armatures and plaster casts of humans or their bones or muscles, and a drafting table.
I would wake up at dawn on a daybed and know what was around me. But also know how the landscape of my life had changed. How seemingly safe people in my personal landscapes past and present and future had been revealed as betrayers, even molesters. How neo-Victorian family members – intelligent, sometimes honored, cautiously Ivy League – family members who had seemed at worst comic in their stuffiness had turned into people who now seemed like characters in horror stories. Despite their veneer, they had left in their wake molestation and addiction and hopeless depression, and the often violent early deaths of sons and daughters.
In the early morning I would lie on the day bed for a time in a suspended state, as if there has just been a major death and as if, if I kept my eyes closed, I could pretend it had not happened yet.
Lying on the daybed in what was now my crowded studio, my eyes shut, remembering, then, other paintings visited and revisited for the hope they gave me. Matisse’s harsh but still connected piano lesson – Deibenkorn’s capturing of life-giving color, Joan Mitchell's exuberance, Manet's reality, and Daubigny, among the painters new to me - his use of green in river bank scenes causing me to breathe deeply with happiness, and remember something wonderful this time that I knew once and had nearly forgotten, and had not, in my professional writing life, had words for. Knowing now that this was what I wanted,both the light and the blackness. This I should write about, and to get to the light I had to go through those woods again.