[Soft Skull Press; 2023]

I went to their house after the principal kicked me out. My mom packed my pink miniature suitcase and buckled me in the back seat of her Corolla. Out the window, strip malls gave way to pines. A narrow road took us closer to the clouds. My grandparents lived in a red ranchette on the side of a mountain, my home for the next two weeks while I waited out my suspension from first grade. None of this felt like a punishment. Apple trees dotted the backyard. Deer milled between raked piles of leaves. Piles I planned to leap into! Inside the house, I knew that a big wooden bed topped with stuffed bears waited for me. Even more exciting, my grandparent’s house had art. Real art. Framed oil paintings adorned every room. Some were nature landscapes, others depicted Biblical scenes. My favorite hung above my grandmother’s recliner in the living room, across from the TV that streamed baseball reruns all day. The painting depicted a familiar sight: a red ranchette perched on a snowy cliff. During those two weeks, desperate to look at anything other than grassy diamonds on the TV, I spent hours gazing up at the snowy scene. I imagined myself romping through the snow, calling my squirrel friends to join me for an adventure through the enchanted forest that lay just beyond the wooden frame.

As a child I never thought to ask about the painting’s origins. Not until my grandmother’s death when I was twenty-five did I learn that she had painted it. Not only had she painted all the art in the house, but she had also chosen to display her work. The rediscovery of these paintings as hers upended my childhood understanding of her. My grandmother never expressed interest in art to me. I cannot recall a single instance of her showing pride in herself. What I knew: she was a skilled bookkeeper who dominated crossword puzzles. She watched The Young and the Restless. She let me brush her hair before bed and play with her blush. In her house, I never had to worry about anyone teasing me for being slow in class. I never needed to flee from the room, run down the hall or out the school, the infraction that had triggered my suspension. At her house, I could relax, daydream my way into the snowy landscape. I cannot remember a time when those paintings were not affixed to her wood paneled walls. While I had never shared my writing with her, the discovery that she appreciated art made me feel closer to her. But I was also mad that no one had mentioned her artist era before. Why had her paintings been forgotten? How had this forgetting shaped our relationship?

I forgot about my grandmother’s paintings not once but twice. In the weeks after she passed, the paintings were scattered among my mother and two uncles. The personal history I wrote for my grandmother over the next few years in my head and in my essays didn’t include the word “artist.” I still thought of her as a housewife-turned-numbers-whiz. I missed her, but I didn’t miss the paintings. I didn’t understand their significance to me or my family. Not yet. Not until I read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new book Touching the Art, a place-based memoir about memory, intergenerational trauma, and visual art. A prolific queer writer and activist, Sycamore is the author of six nonfiction anthologies along with three novels and three nonfiction books. Touching the Art reads like a conversation with your keenest friend. Page by page Sycamore unpacks the fractured relationship with her late grandmother, Gladys, an abstract artist from Baltimore who counted Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan as her peers. Using her grandmother’s life as the raw materials for this self-directed research project, Sycamore offers readers a brilliant rethinking of the value of art and the possibility of connection across seemingly intractable familial divides.

Touching the Art opens with a collage of memories, ekphrasis, and philosophical aphorisms that mimic the slippery nature of Sycamore and Gladys’s adult relationship. “If art is a gap in feeling, it’s also a feeling of the gap,” she writes. These reversals invite us to reread, reevaluate, reinterpret what we think we know on and off the page. The book’s fragmentary form echoes Sycamore’s previous memoir, The Freezer Door. Shorter sections are buffeted by longer passages that allow us to linger in Sycamore’s thoughts, heightening the intimacy between the author and reader. Sycamore’s use of present tense is both immersive and propulsive. Early in Touching the Art, Sycamore writes, “Now I have two tiny scraps of handmade paper by my computer—I put one in my mouth, and I feel like it’s dissolving . . . There isn’t really a taste, only texture. The glory of natural materials.” Similar scenes of bodily intimacy with art abound throughout the book. For Sycamore, “Art is never just art, it is a history of a feeling, a gap between sensations, a safety valve, an escape hatch, a sudden shift in the body, a clipboard full of flowers, a welcome mat flipped over and back over and back, welcome.”

Art offers Sycamore a path into and out of her family’s fractured history. Ekphrastic descriptions are stitched with archival materials, trips to museums, and snippets of interviews with artists such as Joan Mitchell as well as Sycamore’s mother. Touching the Art is part of a subgenre of hybrid nonfiction books where authors reckon with fraught family legacies and relationships by spending time in the archives. In the 2018 memoir JELL-O Girls, author Allie Rowbottom uses her mother’s unfinished autobiography and her grandmother’s abandoned artistic ambitions to chart intergenerational trauma. Begun while she was a graduate student, Rowbottom’s narrative is suffused with research about the places and communities in which her mother and grandmother lived along with the cultural, political, and class contexts that shaped her. Scholar Saidiya Hartman’s 2007 nonfiction book Lose Your Mother was likewise born in a library. While doing research for her graduate dissertation, Hartman discovered a mention of her great-great-grandmother in a volume of slave testimony. Her family’s reluctance to talk about their traumatic pasts offers Hartman a void to write into. Their silence stirs her own “questions about memory and slavery: What is it we choose to remember about the past and what is it we will to forget?” In Touching the Art, Gladys’s sudden absence creates a similar void for Sycamore to explore.

Today, few know the name Gladys Goldstein. She may not have achieved the renown of the abstract expressionist giants like Jackson Pollock, but she’s the star of Touching the Art. Goldstein likewise played an invaluable role in Sycamore’s own artistic development, emphasizing art’s potential to change who we are and how we experience the world. Gladys tells Sycamore: “As the painting changes, you change with it. You start out with one idea, and then something else happens.” While Gladys encouraged Sycamore’s creativity as a child, her support curdles as Sycamore’s art becomes unabashedly queer. “Vulgar” is the word Gladys uses to describe Sycamore’s writing. Where Gladys once served as a potent model of nonconformity for the young Sycamore, she increasingly pressures Sycamore to pursue middle-class stability. The gap between who Sycamore thought her grandmother was and who her grandmother might have been animates Sycamore’s research. Gladys’s art invites Sycamore into the gap and gifts her a way back into a relationship. Who says we can’t form relationships primarily through art? “This book wouldn’t exist if Gladys were alive,” Sycamore writes, “I wouldn’t have realized I missed her.”   

As part of her research, Sycamore temporarily moves to Baltimore “to find out what I can about Gladys’s world but also to find my own world there too.”  Soon she’s interviewing Gladys’s family, neighbors, former students, and gallery contacts. She reads through old newspaper clippings and catalogs searching for her grandmother’s name. As she sifts through a box of family photographs, we’re right there with her, snapshot in hand. Sycamore sustains this effect through temporal phrases like, “suddenly I remember the time.” Reading this present-tense narrative, I often felt as if I were walking down the streets of Baltimore, discovering alongside her, remembering as she remembers. This intimacy is amplified in the many moments when Sycamore directly addresses the reader. “Can I tell you something else,” she asks. “Let’s back up and get a wider angle.”

The wide take is crucial for Sycamore. Context matters. Only through understanding the time, place, and cultural moment a person lived within can we begin to glimpse them. In the second half of the book, Sycamore gazes beyond the narrative of her grandmother’s life to explore Gladys’s city, community, and the specific times in which she made art. This widened frame contains the history of Baltimore, white flight, Jewish assimilation, and racialized violence. Zooming out, the expansive structure holds intergenerational trauma, familial homophobia, sexual violence, and the gendered dynamics of the art world. The long take also makes space for joy. Touching the Art pulses with the pleasure of connection. “For a long time I didn’t want any of Gladys’s art . . . because I thought it would just make me sad. Because of who she became. Who she became for me. Just another barrier to overcome,” Sycamore writes. “Then, on one of my visits, I chose a few of her candy wrapper collages . . . and when I put them up on my walls I felt that light in my eyes.”

My grandmother’s paintings never hung in a gallery. They’re not part of a permanent collection. But I think Sycamore was right: their import lies in their connective powers. Midway through Touching the Art, I texted my mother, “Do you remember that grandma painted?” As I read on, I found myself scribbling questions about grandma in the book’s margins. How did she feel sitting in front of the easel? Was she terrified of the blank white space, like I am? Or did she plunge in, arms moving with abandon? Unlike Gladys, there is no archive documenting my grandmother’s practice. Her fears and desires are lost to posterity. But Touching the Art reminds me that what is forgotten by history is as revelatory as what is remembered.

On the phone, mom tells me that the beloved painting of the red house belonged to my uncle. When he passed, his daughter inherited it. Our side of the family has been estranged for years. My uncle struggled with addiction and spent much of his life incarcerated. I’m sad to say I know little about him beyond this meager narrative. As an adult, my mother lived with him briefly. In her final days, they both moved into the red house to take care of my grandmother. Back then, if I asked my mom about him, she would sigh and say all he did was smoke cigarettes inside and bring women home. I didn’t tell her then that we shared this penchant for chain smoking with women in bed. When she complained about him, I finally felt close to him. Mom tells me now that in the days after grandma’s death, he wanted to take that specific painting home with him. We loved the same painting! I say a thank you to Sycamore and text my mother to ask for his daughter’s number. If I want to see the painting of the red house again, if I want to touch it, I will need to call my cousin up and say hi.

Elizabeth Hall is the author of the book I HAVE DEVOTED MY LIFE TO THE CLITORIS, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. You can find her on instagram at @badmoodbaby.

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