In that time when I couldn’t stay out of the museums it seemed to me that up till now my range had been surprisingly small. I had thought of myself as man who knew art – ever since a great awakening in Paris at 16 when I suddenly knew the location of very painting by every Impressionist in the Jeu de Paum – which was on the expansive Place de la Concorde with it grand spaciousness and white marble.
“Impressionist” was a word I had not seen or heard before that summer, for I was coming from houses where there were no serious pictures on the walls, just decoration. But my mother had memories from a junior year abroad, and an appreciation, and I wondered why it had not gone further.
I had known neither the name of the group, “Impressionists,” nor the names of its members, but they took me over immediately. And 35 years later, when I verged on despair because my writing could not help me, I still knew exactly which direction in which room in the Jeu de Paum to look to see Renoir’s Girl on a Swing – which I thought of as a girl not on a swing but meeting me on a path – or the Monet poplars – or the depressing little Delacroix works added there only for art history purposes – or Manet’s magnificent people – an artists’ picnic on the grass, one of whose members was a nude artists' model – as appealing in her way as, straight ahead and to the left in the next room the calculatingly languid, inviting, high-class whore Olympia, high on the wall so you had to tilt your head up to see her.
The next summer I was on an exchange program in Holland and I did take in the Rembrandts and Franz Hals. And as a 21-year-old journalist I discovered Edward Hopper in Chicago, his Night Hawks, not yet so well known, new to me then, like people I had seen in many lonely diners – but in those first years after college – the journalism years, the two years in the army, and the unpublished novels and sometimes actual sometimes languid girls – in the first years after all that and I had landed in New York – a place on East 13th Street which was still the Lower East Side, not quite the East Village yet, I had taken pride that my beautiful, bright new girlfriend Vannie was an action painter – and we were in and out of museums and galleries every rambling Sunday —but in the 35 years between that first time in Paris and the time in which my life was unfolding in startling new ways in front of works of visual art I found that my range had not much increased – that it had not gone beyond the Impressionists and some, but hardly all, of the 17th century Dutch and, yes, Hopper and, with Vannie, a few people new in the fifties – deKooning and Franz Kline if not yet Jackson Pollack and Phillip Guston– and so everything I was looking at now, 35 years after Paris – these rooms in all the museums in New York – became in my mind as clear as the small Jeu de Paum still was –
Most of what I saw now, including things I would have thought would have been familiar , was brand new to me – Raphael, Hobbema, Durer, Daubigny, Bellini, Francia, Kandinisky, Andrea del Sarto, Sheeler, Tintoretto – and so many others—
As new to me now as Manet and Monet and Renoir had been when I was 16. And I knew now just where to look in the Brooklyn Museum – a far wall – for Daubigny, and in the Modern – off the left in the next to last room – for René Magritte – and to the left going into the permanent collection at the Guggenheim the big Pisarro, and in the Frick, one room over from Bellini’s St. Francis, for the Claude de Lorrain, and two rooms on and to the left in the Frick, next to another charged Hobbema, the Constable White Horse.
And although when I was 16 and found myself still trapped in the family even in Paris –my life had expanded in the Jeu de Paum. And now I wondered why it had not expanded further.
Any more than in the years I made my living writing did I let what I wrote go much beyond what I planned to write.
Though after the time living in visual art it became as hard – and as unlikely – for me to keep things in place if I returned to writing as it had been in the past to let what I wrote take its own direction.
For example – I thought I would write a traditional story about the horrors of boarding school – set in my boarding school, Holderness, Georgian buildings in the New Hampshire lake country. But I discovered while writing, that in actuality it was in boarding school that I got my first clear taste of freedom – and what I might become.
And I tried to write about the overall perfection of my summer life in our family’s intensely formal enclave – those big houses with striped awnings and white bird baths – in the otherwise unkempt and scruffy White Mountains of New Hampshire. And I could not stuff down what I knew, for the writing put me back again in Hobbema’s dark, unsafe woods instead.
In the years that followed I often wrote in museums. The how-to-write books almost always say that writing must be grim and gray and lonely, hard work for which you must grit your teeth and tighten up all sphincters. You must be willing to sit for hours every day of your life in front of blank paper or a blank computer screen whether or not anything appears on the screen or on paper.
By now I have known an infinite number or writers, back from my days working for what were billed as big-time magazine and newspaper companies to my days consorting with fellow writers when my own books were being published, to these years working with writers in our workshops who are willing, unlike most academics and critics, to treat writing as an art and go deep into concrete reality, that material that the writer, the artist, knows best, the writer’s actual life. Nothing can stop writing more effectively than the command to spend three hours each day staring at something blank. Almost none of the all the writers I know do anything worthwhile trying to work that way.
And I still find museums the best places in which to write.