by Jessica Handler
My mother and I played a secret game in art museums. What, we would ask the other, is the single piece we would take for our own if such a thing were possible? The game required that we explain our reasons for choosing this Chagall sketch or that bird’s eye maple console. Never mind a museum’s reverence, the game asked. What piece do you love deeply enough to want to keep with you always?
In the mid 1980s I went to an exhibition at Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum. I don’t remember why I chose it: had I seen an advertisement for the exhibit, or a review in the Boston Globe? I went, even though the university neighborhoods of Cambridge intimidated me with their venerable brick, wrought iron, and ancient ivy. The show was, I realize now, probably part of a touring retrospective of the work of Jonathan Borofsky, new to me then. What I do remember is that I was frozen in my steps by a painting called I dreamed I asked my father what the matter was and he said his tooth was bleeding.
This is not a pretty painting in the way we might think of pretty. It’s stark. The image is a genderless head, neck, and shoulders, essentially featureless. There may be an arm crossed at the chest, or perhaps Borofsky swiped his brush horizontally at the very bottom of the canvas. I remember the painting as a deep pit of cobalt, navy, and midnight blue. Two specks of yellow lit the eyes like light escaping a dark room. A gaping mouth released two drops of what had to represent blood onto the figure’s chest.
I stood in front of that painting for what felt like hours. I remember wondering if people thought I was insane for not moving on. I wondered if they were irritated by my rigid body obscuring their view. I dreamed I asked my father was a picture of my own massive fear and sorrow. Pinpoint eyes, gaping mouth shedding blood or tears.
My father avoided his family. He did not come to my high school graduation because he said he had scheduled dental surgery that day. My mother and my sister Sarah came, flying in from the city where they lived. My father’s mouth actually did bleed, often. He removed his false teeth at the dinner table and lay them in my plate, grimacing at me with his bald gums. My father had clenched his natural teeth to dust. Addiction to Dexedrine will do that. Anxiety, rage, and sorrow will do that.
My parents had three daughters, of whom I am the eldest. When I was eight, my six-year-old sister Susie was diagnosed with leukemia. She died less than two years later. Our youngest sister, Sarah, was born with a congenital illness so rare that treatments were experimental, expensive, often excruciating. She died before she was thirty. Our father could not cope. Our mother took care of my sisters and me. There was art in our house, beauty that my dissolving father damaged but did not destroy.
I have an image of that painting in a published survey of Borofsky’s work, compiled in conjunction with that mid ‘80s retrospective, although the Sackler show isn’t listed in the book’s exhibition schedule. I dreamed I asked my father is identified as 24 by 20 inches in size.
My recollection is that it was the size of an entire wall.
At the bottom right of the painting, there’s a number: 2,189,449. Borofsky undertook a counting project beginning in 1968 as a “daily obsession of three hours of writing numbers in succession linearly on paper every day.” He has since stopped that project, or become not “quite so obsessive” about it. He signed his work not with his name, but with the number he had reached on the day he finished a piece. 2,189,449. A measure of existence. The work of self-soothing.
Louise Glück’s poem “Radium” is about domestic life, as is much of her work. In “Radium,” the narrator — I presume it’s girl, although it’s not a confessional poem — observes the end of summer, her younger sister’s starting school, her own vigilance. “Radium” acknowledges the concessions that people, particularly women, make for domestic calm. She writes:
putting aside radium because you realized finally
it was more interesting to make beds,
to have children like my sister and me.
She does not write that radium causes cancer, that teeth fall out, that hair falls out. The poem is not about radium in that way. It’s about the troubled energy hidden in domesticity. It’s about self-soothing.
Time was passing. Time was carrying us
faster and faster toward the door of the laboratory,
and then beyond the door into the abyss, the darkness.
My mother stirred the soup. The onions,
by a miracle, became part of the potatoes.
Time carries the experience of children into our adulthood.
In the book I have of Borofsky’s work, I dreamed I asked my father is reproduced in black and white. As I wrote this essay, I sought a color image of the painting, although I was certain that my memory of the overwhelmingly blue figure with yellow eyes was correct. A colleague who directs the museum at the university where I teach undertook a search for me. She sent me a link to an image from a show at the Whitney Museum in 1984. With it, she wrote, “[it] might be grisaille rather than color.”
I dreamed I asked my father is entirely gray.
Glück writes of her sister,
She was being stored in my head, as memory,
like facts in a book.
Memory remakes facts. Onions become part of potatoes. For thirty-five years, I remembered a painting as blue and yellow, as a massive thing, the focal point of an installation. Fact proves memory wrong. The painting is smallish, made of shades of gray.
But that painting kept me motionless for what I think of as hours but was surely only minutes. My own broken heart is invisible as radium, concealed like a bleeding tooth. My father is dead now, as are my mother and my sisters. But this is the painting I would tell my mother I would take home. I love this painting the way I love my family; haunted, bleeding, and counting every moment.
Jessica Handler is the author of the novel The Magnetic Girl, the memoir Invisible Sisters, and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. She teaches creative writing and coordinates the Minor in Writing at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and lectures internationally on writing.
Thanks to Elizabeth Peterson of the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art for research support.