When I was a small child I went on many Saturdays with my grandfather to the Museum of Modern Art. The museum was located where it is now, on 53rd Street, but then it was a different place. It was small and intimate, and it was a place you went to look at pictures. In some ways the museum felt to me like an extension of my grandfather. My grandfather (he was my father’s father) was a man of medium height. His red hair had turned white by the time I knew him. He wore a small mustache. Though I know I saw him frequently in other seasons, I think of him wearing a grey overcoat and a black beret. He was a great reader, and a devotee of Spinoza, particularly. Later, when I was about 12, and he was dying but did not know that yet, he told me that his favorite book was The Magic Mountain, and he gave it to me to read. His childhood, first in Russia and then in New York, where his stepfather was unkind to him, was repressive. He ran away, and then came back. He was a lawyer, but sometime in his middle years he became a painter. The room in which I stayed when I spent the weekend at my grandparents’ apartment was his studio. It smelled of oil paint and turpentine.
On Saturday mornings after breakfast we took the E train to the museum. This was a convenient train, because one stop was directly outside my grandparents’ building, in Chelsea, and another stop was on 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. Often, in my memory, it was snowing. Because this was the early ‘60s, when little girls did not generally wear trousers, I wore heavy black serge tights, a smocked dress with a knitted cardigan, black patent leather Mary Jane shoes and a wool coat that pinched my neck when the top button was closed.
My grandfather was a member of the museum; he showed a little card and we were ushered in with a bit of ceremony by the guard. This was in the days when the museum was almost empty on a Saturday morning, and because of this, often our mornings there felt like private visits. My grandfather sometimes had a picture in mind that he wanted to look at. He was drawn, always, to the pictures by Braque and Cezanne, which were on the second floor. These were the paintings of his youth, and they excited him. He liked to look at pictures for a long time, and he showed me how to look, too. Sometimes he would take me, as on a journey, from one corner of the painting to another, explaining how the light and color were talking to each other. If he was feeling light-hearted he gave the blue, or the red, something to say, like “Hello,” or “Do you think it will rain?” I was perhaps four or five at the time, and this never failed to amuse me.
When my grandfather was through looking, and we had passed through and said hello to a few friends, “Starry Night,” and Matisse’s blue and green dancers on the stairwell, which I loved with my whole heart, it was time for my paintings.
There were two. We visited each one, in turn, and as I had stood with my grandfather without tugging at him, or hopping on one foot, or saying that I was hungry, he stood and waited until I was finished looking. The first picture was “Guernica.” Later I heard it said about “Guernica” that when you look at it you know all there is to know about war. No one, certainly not my grandfather, said anything like that to me, at the time. At some point I think he explained to me the circumstances of the picture, while we stood in front of it. Picasso had painted it after the German and Italian forces had bombed a town, called Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War. I knew Picasso from the other pictures he had painted that hung in the museum, of blue clowns and a girl with a flower.
This picture was not like those pictures. It was huge. The impression, looking at it, was that it was three-dimensional: the painting was a room, and you were inside it. I remember it as the biggest painting in the museum, but that may not be true. It looked so to me. It was hung on the third floor, between the elevators. It was then, at that time, the most violent image I had ever seen. As a child I was not allowed to watch much television; then, though, violent images were not usual fare for children, nor for anyone else. There was, as compared to now, a dearth of images.
My method for looking at the painting was the one I had learned from my grandfather. I looked at one corner at a time. Here in this corner was a woman screaming. Below her, a little to the left, a horse was screaming. What were they saying to each other? I couldn’t answer. A woman’s face came out of a cloud. A flowerpot lay in shards. I did not, and do not, even now, have the vocabulary. Perhaps there is none, for those screams.
Sometimes I stood at one end of the picture, and just looked, close-up, at a little patch. From the little patch, it was hard to see what else was going on. On other visits I walked from one end of the canvas to the other, my head slightly averted, as if I weren’t really looking. It was, I think, my first experience of voyeurism. Every time I returned to look at the painting I was surprised to find that it was painted in shades of black and white and gray. In my mind, it was red. I was always careful not to look at the baby.
When I was done looking we went back through the galleries to see my other picture. Sometimes we had seen it already, because it was hung in a hall, on a separate, small wall, in the permanent gallery my grandfather liked to visit first. When this happened I simply took my turn looking, or sometimes I pretended not to see it, depending on my mood, and then we went back.
This picture was by Pavel Tchelitchew. It was called “Hide and Seek.” It was a painting of a green tree. The tree was green, and the sky around the tree was also green, and inside the tree, there were tiny faces of children. These children were trapped, and trying to get out. I could tell by their faces they wanted to get out. It was a nightmare tree. But if you knew to step back a little from the trunk of the tree, the arms and twigs of the tree were really capillaries, and the tree was inside the head of a girl. I think it was my grandfather who pointed this out to me. The girl was about my age. She had dreamed the tree, but the tree had taken root. What were the faces saying to each other? What was the girl saying to the tree? This picture so frightened me that when we were in the gallery and came upon it suddenly, I turned my back to it and looked down at my shiny shoes.
The other day—it is almost half a century later, and it is late afternoon—I was walking up from the beach, in late August. I was on the path set into the high dune, with my children and the children of my friend, and when we got to the top, the path and the parking lot were alive with huge dragonflies. The sky was a black whir. Because my children are older then the last time the dragonflies came around, when they were frightened of them (the dragonflies emerge on the dune every four years, as part of a mysterious cycle, like cicadas) one of them said, “Oh, they won’t hurt you,” and their little convoy passed under the hum to the car.
Most of the dragonflies were congregated on a path that runs to the right of the parking lot, if you are facing the beach. The path is smothered in June by beach roses, and in August, by rose hips. When I was a child there was a sign on that path, painted with a skull and crossbones. Under this sign a legend read, No Admittance. Across the path was a piece of chain. The road then led to an Air Force radar station. The station, its headlight sweeping the beach at night, kept watch for enemy missiles. One day, we knew, missiles would be launched toward us by the Soviet Union but these would be stymied by radar. Now the sign is gone, and people climb up the path a little way in order to get cell phone reception.
I stood on the dune for a little while longer, watching and listening to the dragonflies. The last time they came they had almost driven me mad. I think now they were indicative of a frenzy I sensed but knew nothing about, inside myself, the way the endless wind, a few days before, the back side of the hurricane, seemed a slow slithering fuse on the sill, electric on my skin. But last month I was happy to see the dragonflies, if only because it meant that time had passed.
Behind me, a little girl came up the dune, following her mother. She was wearing a pink two-piece bathing suit that was falling down, and her head was huge on a neck that almost could not support it. She was dismayed by the dragonflies. Her mother—who had two older children, dragging towels and pails up the hill—took one look at her and said, “Oh, Annie, it’s Dragonfly Alley.”
That art can transform a whir of black wings, burnish and give it back, is something we know, but what finds a home in the mind is a mystery. At the top of the dune the girl and her mother and I smiled at each other, at the edge of the parking lot; we all knew about wands, and wizards, and Diagon Alley. In Diagon Alley, does the wizard choose the wand, or does the wand choose the wizard? That my grandfather countenanced these visits to the two pictures, which I see now, from this distance, as morbid and obsessive, remains a mystery to me, but when I was a child it was with my grandfather that I felt safe.
Although both times I have been married it was to men to whom painting was important—one like my grandfather, is a painter, and one is in the business of art—I know next to nothing about painting. Draw a house, my children say. My drawings look like hen scratches, my houses have lopsided windows. Smoke comes out of the crooked chimneys like pigs’ tails.
But that these two pictures no longer hang in the museum is something I find difficult to hold in my mind. “Guernica” was returned to Spain in 1997, although now a life-sized needlepoint replica hangs in the United Nations. “Hide and Seek,” is out of fashion; when I called the museum I was told it was in storage. That neither of these pictures is there may be a reason that I don’t like the new museum, which is cold and too big and has too many things to buy, like a department store. Both pictures were landscapes of terror. At the museum, I knew, you couldn’t stand too close to the pictures, or touch them. I shifted from foot to foot, holding my grandfather’s hand. You are here, the map said.
How can that be? I thought. But I knew it was true. The world was a glove; it could turn inside out. The pictures were about what I knew, and what I didn’t know yet, but would. I knew that too. They were one way I learned about these things.