David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by E.J. Koh’s much-anticipated debut novel The Liberators, an elegantly wrought family saga of memory, trauma, and empathy and a stunning testament to the consequences and fortunes of inheritance. Spending two continents and four generations, The Liberators exquisitely captures two Korean families forever changed by faithful decisions made in love and war. Says Tayari Jones, “Spare, beautiful and richly layered, The Liberators is dazzling.” Adds Ed Park, “You won’t know what hit you until the final, perfect image.” The Liberators is available now from Tin House. I’ll just add that E. J. Koh’s appearance on Between the Covers for her memoir The Magical Language of Others, that is also very much a book about language and translation, is one I’d point people to if you’re looking for where to go next in the archive. In that spirit, today’s guest Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore also has two not-to-be-missed episodes in the archives. Her first appearance on the podcast for her book Sketchtasy, a conversation that is a great compliment to today’s conversation because both the book and conversation couldn’t be more different than the book and conversation we have today, but also Matilda’s craft talk Writing On Your Own Terms, that talk is the most listened to Tin House live episode ever, and for good reason. If you need a boost for your writing or art-making practice, a boost to your weathering of the world, or maybe you don’t think you need a boost but I suspect if you listen, you’ll realize that you did, today’s conversation about Mattilda’s latest book, the remarkable Touching the Art, as you’ll soon see, gives us an opportunity to talk about so many things about art, politics, race, gender but most of all, I think about love and how love can be a place of contradiction, and nuance, a place of loss and grief at the same time as it’s a place of possibility. I won’t say more now other than to tell you that similar to last time Mattilda was on the show and read for the bonus audio archive a chapter of their forthcoming book, the book that ultimately became The Freezer Door, this time, Mattilda also contributes a reading to the bonus audio of a book not yet published, the first chapter of their forthcoming book Terry Dactyl. That joins an incredible wealth of material from readings, craft talks, long-form conversations with translators and much more in the bonus audio archive, which is only one possible thing to choose from when you join the Between the Covers Community. One lucky new listener-supporter could choose four signed copies of Mattilda’s past books, her iconic memoir The End of San Francisco, two of her novels, Pulling Taffy, which we talk about today and So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, and the anthology she edited, Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients or you could choose the Tin House early readership subscription receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public and every supporter at any level of support receives the resource-rich email with each episode, and can join our collective brainstorm of who to invite on the show going forward. You can check it all out and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore.
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is writer and editor Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Described by Howard Zinn as, “Startlingly bold and provocative,” Sycamore is the author of both novels and memoirs and the editor of many non-fiction anthologies. Her memoir The End of San Francisco won the Lambda Literary Award for transgender non-fiction and her anthology Why are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Her novels include So Many Ways to Sleep Badly and Pulling Taffy, and her non-fiction anthologies include Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving, and Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write about Their Clients. Sycamore has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, BOMB, Bookforum, The New York Times, The New Inquiry, Los Angeles Review of Books, Truthout, Utne Reader, Bitch, and Bookslut and for 10 years was the reviews editor and columnist for the feminist magazine Make/shift, and now writes the Sparks column for The Anarchist Review of Books. In the 90s, Sycamore was active in both Act Up and Fed Up Queers, hosted the first Gay Shame event in New York, and was one of the principal organizers of Gay Shame in San Francisco. In 2018, she co-organized a Queer Anti-Militarism Townhall: Trans Liberation Not U.S. Invasion, she contributed to Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage and wrote the introduction to Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. In 2008, the Utne Reader named Sycamore one of the 50 visionaries who are changing the world. The last time Mattilda was on the show was for her book Sketchtasy, a book NPR picked as one of the Best Books of 2018 of which Sarah Schulman says, “If Sketchtasy doesn’t become a classic, we are doomed. A lesson in how to write, how to remember, how to grapple with history.” Since then, she has edited the anthology Between Certain Death and a Possible Future: Queer Writing on Growing Up with the AIDS Crisis, named one of Book Riot’s 100 Most Influential Queer Books of All Time and also her memoir or possibly lyric essay The Freezer Door of which Maggie Nelson says, “In a happy paradox common to great literature, it’s a book about not belonging that made me feel deeply less alone.” Wayne Koestenbaum adds, “I admire Sycamore’s gossamer refusal ever to land anywhere definitive; the sentences travel further and further into trauma’s backyard, where complex ideas find a habitat among the simplest formulations. Sycamore, by breathing into the prose, treats the act of book-building as a practice strange and organic as sleeping, walking, bathing, eating. The Freezer Door delves into the philosophy of the sexual meetingplace with a virtually unprecedented aplomb.” I’m excited we have Mattilda back again for her latest book, the remarkable Touching the Art from Soft Skull Press. Here are thoughts on Touching the Art from three past Between the Covers guests. Christina Sharpe says, “Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Touching the Art is ekphrastic, intimate, historical, and proximate. The art of the title, paintings by Sycamore’s grandmother Gladys Goldstein, appears only through description—and what description. We encounter the work, learn who Gladys was and who she was in relation to—how gentrification, redlining, and anti Blackness shape space, and how ‘family’ organizes itself to refuse confrontation and to excise queerness. Sycamore employs diverging yet deeply related histories. Touching the Art is an education; a beautiful instruction in feeling and looking.” Rabih Alameddine adds, “I love writers who take risks, who rattle cages, who overthrow the tables of the money changers, writers who can whisper truths or shout them fabulously from rooftops. Yes, I love Mattilda.” Finally, Catherine Lacey, “Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore braids humor, tragedy, and unabashed presence in every single sentence she writes. With Touching the Art she blends history, essay, and memoir, telling her own secrets and truths through the lives of others. I adore Sycamore’s writing and would follow her anywhere. Nobody touches the art like Sycamore.” Welcome back to Between the Covers, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Thank you, David. It’s such an honor to be here.
DN: This book is amazing and one of the ways it is is how you somehow write a book that is deeply personal, that is also a book about the life of an artist, which is also about the history of a city, which becomes a book about family, class, Jewishness, White flight, anti-Blackness, abstract art, queerness, homophobia, and much more while at the same time somehow feeling like it is all inseparable that each piece is needed to understand the other. I wanted us to start with the personal and the familial, and eventually work our way out to the structural and the historical. Your portrayal of your grandmother, Gladys Goldstein, the way you portray her, a complicated figure in her own right but a complicated figure for you in particular, the way you portray her is the genius of this book and I was hoping we can start with the way this book is love letter to what she inspired in you, then we’ll complicate it as we go along. In Touching the Art, you say of Gladys that she gave you the gift of being a child who could dream despite the trauma, that she “offered me the tools to imagine myself outside of normalcy,” that she helped you to dream an everyday experience, to look at a flower and savor each element, to take it all inside, and you say quote, “What is it about Gladys’ art that creates a sense of wonder? How after looking at her art, I can feel this way when I look at anything. This is the place in me that she helped to create.” You also talk about how she recorded your relationship together through her paintings before you were old enough to even be able to. Finally, I’ll add that you bow to Gladys as a big influence on your writing. Talking about her painting, she said, “As the painting changes, you change with it. You start out with one idea and then something else happens,” then you say, “That’s how I write. The form emerges from the act of writing.” I wonder if you could both speak more into this indebtedness you have to your grandmother’s art and also perhaps begin to orient us to what her art was like, and how she was situated within the art world.
MBS: Thank you for that beautiful question. As a child, I think that Gladys nourished everything that made me different, my femininity, my introspection, my creativity, my empathy, my softness. Going into her studio when I was a kid was the one place where I could dream and I could imagine a creative life because I was living it there with her. She was an abstract artist, so her way of thinking about art was that everything was art. When you’re walking around in the world and you see a leaf on the ground, and you pick it up and you look at that structure or you look at how the light comes through it, that is also a painting. She really, although I didn’t know it at the time, taught me in a way to look at everything that way. Actually, when I was writing the book, that realization about how she saw art and how that impacted me was not something I knew before. That really came through the writing process and it’s also not something that she would have necessarily wanted me to do, [laughter] because abstraction was not the writing that she searched for, my work perhaps became too challenging for her but that I guess is moving further ahead. [laughter] You asked me to stay at the beginning. [laughter] What you were saying about recording a relationship through her paintings is also something I would never have thought of until writing the book. But then in writing the book, I’m looking in particular, I start by talking about this one painting that was actually in my grandfather’s bedroom. My grandfather’s bedroom became my room when I visited, and on the wall of that bedroom was this painting that was modeled after a photo that was taken by my other grandmother when I was about six, if I’m remembering correctly. It’s abstract but it also includes a figure on the left which is obviously me and I’m wearing this long pink scarf, and blending into the flowers in the background. As a child, I always found that soothing. As an adult though looking at it now, and again, this is also not something I realized until writing the book, so in some ways, I’m always creating the structure of a book as I’m writing it and the writing changes me as I change with it, like what you were saying about the paintings. In looking at that, I see that she actually saw the trauma in me as a child because, in that painting, I looked traumatized. There are three other paintings that I talk about that are directly about me and one of them was painted when I was two, and that one is called Child’s Play. That one is completely abstract. Again, I actually never thought about it in relationship to me but I know it’s about me because there was no other child that she was looking at that time. There is this relationship that in some ways is literal in the art itself and in some ways, I think that is what abstraction is. Abstraction is always literal. Gladys actually saw herself, she thought in some ways, she would say, “Well, I’m a realistic painter,” [laughs] because she thought that recording something as if it was photographic, to her that wasn’t realism, that was something inauthentic or derivative. She wanted to conjure the actual feeling of the thing, the experience, or the imagination in the painting. I think that is something in some ways that I’m also discovering as I’m writing. My relationship with her art, I start the book by literally touching the art. It’s a literal exploration. I’m taking these handmade paperworks that are very layered and that I saw her create when I was a kid, and I’m feeling into everything that comes through. That first layer that you’re asking about is of course directly about the art. I see like, “Oh, here is a seashell windchime that’s embedded in the paperwork,” and I remember when that windchime broke, then she thought, “Oh, I should put those in my paperwork,” or there might be like shredded paper because I remember she got very excited when commercial shredders, the people started having them in their homes in the 80s. She was like, “Look at this beauty, this shredded paper that I could put in my paperwork.” [laughter] Or a beaded necklace would break and she would put the beads into the paperwork. Or as a kid, we went to this place that she called the button factory which I think was like a store that sold recycled goods and we would look through, and she would find something that was just like a plastic mold, who knows what it was originally for, but she would use it to create the shapes in her paperwork. That’s the first layer is I’m thinking about or feeling into the process of creating the art, then of course, there are my memories of being with her and experiencing that excitement. I also look at videos that were made of her for public television in Maryland and I can see her excitement. When she talks about making candy wrapper collages, which was something she did for about three decades, her eyes just light up. It’s like she’s a child again and I think that is also my experience of being with her art regardless of the complications that I know you want to talk about next. [laughter]
DN: Well, let’s stay with the art for another moment because I think one of the wildest things about this book and one of the most distinctive things about this book, something that Christina Sharpe also notices and marvels about in her blurb, is how much description there is about Gladys’ art given that we are never given the art itself, there are no images in the book but there is a large amount of ekphrastic writing in Touching the Art, yet somehow, it always seems very engaging and tethered to the stakes for you emotionally. I want to ask you about that but first, maybe it would be good to hear a short passage.
[Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore reads from Touching the Art]
DN: We’ve been listening to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore read from Touching the Art. I know you’ve already started to answer the question I’m going to ask with you talking about how you begin by touching the art literally. But talk to us about writing about visual art knowing we aren’t going to see it but rather that you’re going to conjure it in our imaginations. I wondered if this presented challenges or if this came naturally, if you could expound more on the method you use to begin writing with words about abstraction and color, and if you looked to other people doing this and if so, who you looked to, other people who were engaging with visual art.
MBS: Oh, thank you. That’s a great question. I really wanted to start abstractly on the terms of the art but at the same time, I’m Touching the Art, so what could be more concrete? I wanted both at the same time and I did not want to look at any models initially because I’m not an art critic, and I feel like that’s a strength. I wanted to write about the art as I was feeling it as a writer and also my relationship to it, and how that changes as I experience the art, as I am literally touching it, as I’m moving it around in a different light. Maybe I even lick it or at one point, there’s a piece that’s falling off of one of the handmade paperworks and I put it in my mouth. I wanted the full sensory experience of it and it was a challenge. I think abstract art is actually very hard to conjure because description on its own fails. I think that’s part of the excitement of abstract art in a way. I was just writing and writing, and I would write about individual pieces that moved me. I probably wrote a few hundred pages just describing the art. In the book, that early section is probably about 50 pages but a lot of that is not specifically about art, so maybe there’s 20 or 30 pages very specifically about the art, and that comes through pairing the rest of it down. I had to just keep writing it over and over again. I think in order to really I guess get to the core of it, the essence, or the experiential part of it and also the activeness, I don’t think looking at art is ever a passive experience, so I didn’t want the language to be passive either. Initially, I just wrote and wrote a lot later, which is really the last part of the book that I was writing, it follows that order in the book too when I was doing a lot of research, Elaine de Kooning, her art criticism is amazing and she can just conjure something with just a few lines. That was very interesting to look at later on. I don’t know if it influenced me in the writing but I guess that’s what it did, it validated in some ways what I was doing because it’s tricky because let’s say you look at an abstract painting and let’s say there are 35 shapes in the painting, then the 35 shapes might be a variety of colors, there might be a difference of techniques, there could be different kinds of layering, there might be other things in the painting that are not made of paint, so just thinking about that alone, if we were to literally describe the structure, that alone would be like pages and pages, and pages but would it be interesting? It might be interesting as an experiment but would you really feel the art? Maybe less than if you could just somehow conjure what it’s doing in a few shorter phrases. Also, since the art in the book, of course, the book in some ways is structured like a work of art or like a collage, it’s process-oriented and it’s also layered in those senses, and there also are pieces that come through or wind around, little surprises that you find that you don’t expect, so all of that really came through the writing, so for me, I think in that way, I’m approaching the writing maybe more similar to visual art than traditional writing.
DN: Well, I particularly love this line in what you just read, “I see spaciousness and loss. I see a bright central present, a presence, a swiftness in the lines, a chaos, a stillness in the corner, collapse.” For one, for me it raises the mystery of whether this is what you see in her art or if this is you witnessing her seeing you when she makes it, of course, it could be one or the other or both or neither, all of the above. But it’s clear in your teen years when she has you posed that she does seem to see you for instance when you say things like, “When she painted me again at age twelve, long eyelashes emphasize my femininity—here I have softer features, hints of a nose and lips, my hand reaching into paper collaged onto the canvas. The painting is saturated in blues like I’m in the sky or the water but also I’m grounded by what I’m holding on to, these words. What do they say? The way my shirt becomes a collage but also everything is fluid—even in the brightness of my gaze I’m holding on with a stoicism that I didn’t realize she recognized.” In interviews, you characterize the central paradox in Touching the Art as that Gladys nurtured everything that made you queer, yet as you came into your queerness, she rejected everything that she nurtured and there are many iterations of this in the book, one-on-one between you, within your family structure, then more outward. But I’d like to spend a moment with the one-on-one between you. As I was reading all the ways she found you vulgar, I constructed my own narrative of why, that I don’t think is explicitly on the page. But I wanted to hear your thoughts first before I put forth mine around what seemed to be the two main things she couldn’t abide, one, a sense of public queerness, any sort of being flamboyantly so, and the other I think around you dropping out of school, and moving to San Francisco without some sort of obvious vector, trajectory, and plan.
MBS: In some ways, the genesis of the book is that I’m trying to understand the moment or the years in which, like as a child, I looked to Gladys as the model of everything that I wanted to be and I saw her as rejecting the narrow path of upward mobility that was what I was socialized into, and that what was everywhere surrounding me. I should say as a child who was excelling in school, I had two options and that was doctor or lawyer, [laughter] and every relative would say, “Do you want to be a doctor or a lawyer?” Of course, this is an assimilated Jewish family, this is very common, then one side of the family decided to give me another option which was a stockbroker and that was the other side of the family actually who blatantly money and status were the top thing. Now, on Gladys’ side of the family, which is my father’s side, the top thing was education. At the end of high school, when it was clear that maybe I wasn’t going to follow this path of doctor or lawyer, they opened up another possibility which was a college professor. [laughter] None of these things did I want but because I was excelling and that was what meant most to them, and I think what meant most to them I would say in my family of origin was educational attainment and alongside that is upward mobility class driving at any cost, now that’s the key, at any cost, so the violence in the family that I experienced as a child could always be camouflaged by my father’s success. My father, again, I saw him as completely separate from Gladys. But of course, his worldview was in many ways produced by her, so to him, to my parents, I was a status object, something to attain for them, something that gave them clout. But like I said, as a kid, Gladys’ way of talking about the world was that the only thing that mattered was creativity. The only thing that mattered was making art, sensitivity, and caring and I believed that myth. It was a myth but even though it was a myth, it saved me. That is part of that paradox is that later on, when I decided to leave college after one year because I realized I was just learning how to outdo my parents on their own terms, I’m learning to internalize the violence and externalize this notion of success, so I’m like, “Get me the hell out of here. [laughter] I need to unlearn this if I’m ever going to unlearn anything that will save me or allow me to connect with other queers, freaks, outsiders, or weirdos.” I moved to San Francisco when I was 19 and that’s the world that I found, a world of like dropouts, incest survivors, poors, [inaudible], vegans, anarchists, druggies, and direct action activists which is where I was first drawn. But all of that to Gladys, all of it, every single aspect, everything I mentioned, to her that was all vulgar. That was the word she used. Like when I was doing activism against police brutality or organizing around the second Rodney King Verdict, I think especially those things but also being a part of Act Up or doing activism for abortion access, all of that was vulgar to her. It was just vulgar. She just discounted it entirely. Actually, I will say I think especially activism around racial justice because part of that package of Jewish assimilation is assimilation into White supremacy, and that comes along with that whole package. But again, as a child, I did not see her as part of that. I think that in the book, I want to preserve that ambiguity in a sense because even though I learned or come to understand that more than anything, she was the progenitor of the worldview of my immediate family rather than an alternative to it, she still gave me all of those alternatives. When I moved to San Francisco, then decided I was dropping out of school and she tried to renounce her entire life in order to get me to fit into what I knew would destroy me. I knew it would destroy me, I mean my soul, [laughter] like I would be a hollow shell. She said if she could do it all over again, meaning her whole life, she would have finished school, and what I interpreted that as meaning is instead of becoming an artist, her whole life was about making art. Finishing school for her would have been becoming an art professor. It’s not like she would be completely separate from it but at the time, I found that so preposterous and so blatantly a lie. It was just a lie. I was completely against lies and would not allow any of them to stand, especially at that time when I was 19. [laughter] That laid the ground for our following out even though, at that time period, we still did have some aspect of like I visited her in that moment and she’s taking photos of me, she’s complimenting me on certain aspects that later became vulgar. [laughs] I remember this one time when I visited her and my earrings, I think originally a few years before she had complimented me on, then a few years later, she was just talking about how they were vulgar. My earrings are arranged like a mosaic, this colorful arrangement of stones, textures, and metals. I knew there was a zero percent chance that she did not find it aesthetically beautiful. I knew her aesthetic because it formed me. I knew how she looked at the world but it was vulgar because it was queer and because it was outwardly queer. Another layer of this paradox is that her best friend was a gay artist, Keith Martin, who was instrumental to her career. The first person to ever tell her that she was an artist essentially was a gay artist, Hobson Pittman, who was her teacher and this is in 1951 when she’s been painting since she was 12, she was born in 1917. The fact that this was the first person who told her that she was an artist of course is indicative of the misogyny that she grew up with. But nonetheless, these two gay men were formative to her. I later learned from looking at photos that Keith Martin and his lover were entwined with her family. They’re going on trips, Keith Martin, his lover, my father, my grandfather, and my grandmother in the 1950s when my father was 13. This is the central time of conformity and familial homophobia that lays the groundwork for everything that we still are suffering from now, so there were things that she was able to do that did not translate to me. I think also part of it, Keith Martin was an abstract artist. You can look if you know that he’s gay and interpret it in a certain way but there’s nothing that if you just look at a fully abstract painting of his that you’re like, “Oh.” But my writing, starting when I was about 19, is always sexually and politically saturated. I think both of those things, I think that Gladys was enthralled with this certain modernist idea of purity and that purity meant that you transcend experience. Even if the art is entirely about experience, like the experience of the art, this is again another paradox, is somehow pure and separate from that, so all of that became vulgar to her and the dominant refrain of the rest of our relationship was her saying over and over again, “Why are you wasting your talent?” Or she would just go and we’d have a conversation, I’d be like, “Oh, I went to yoga.” She’s like, “Oh, well, it’s going to kill you,” [laughter] then she gives a whole anecdote about how she broke her neck doing yoga or something, then there’ll be another conversation like, “What are you doing?” It was always that she knew everything and everything I was doing was wrong. That really did start actually if I think about it, again when I was 19 and I moved to San Francisco, and I had left college on that path of upward mobility but I still wanted to learn, of course, I mean the reason I left was to learn. One thing I did is I went to this college, this course, it’s a city college which was called Gay Lesbian Influence on Modern American Art and Culture that Jonathan Katz was teaching. I was learning about these artists that I had not realized because of course, growing up as a queer kid in a world that wants you to die or disappear, you don’t learn about queers in the world other than people that don’t deserve to live. When I was learning Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns, these are essentially abstract artists that my grandmother admired. I write to her because I know that she is coming of age as an artist at the same time and I say, “Well, what is your opinion on that time period?” or “How did you experience these gay artists?” Her response was very interesting actually. She wants to outdo me and she says, “Well, why are you stopping with them? What about [inaudible] or what about Michelangelo?” But the key of course is that it doesn’t matter that they’re gay,” is what she says. Now, for her generation, of course, that’s a liberated way of thinking. But I think for her, I think it’s about erasure. I think it was threatening to her, like any flamboyance like you said or any direct challenge to the status quo was threatening even though she was an abstract artist and she wanted to be an abstract artist because she didn’t believe in the status quo. [laughs]
DN: Yeah, that’s the subtext that I think I was reading in was when you said, “It had to do with being outwardly queer,” I imagine, I don’t know if this is true because she’s traveling with her best friend who’s gay and his boyfriend, that they’re moving through the world in a way where they appear normatively at that time otherwise, that she’s not asking questions and they’re keeping their life behind the curtain for her. In some ways, there’s some respectability politics and decorum around it. Do you think that’s the correct way to be reading into that subtext? That it’s really the display, the declarative aspect of it that was so impossible for her to engage with?
MBS: I think that’s an interesting question. I’m not sure that I can answer completely with complete accuracy about that particular question because I do think this is 1956, they’re driving cross country, they’re going to all these tourist destinations. Now, I’m sure that Keith Martin and his lover were not declaring themselves as gay to the world in that context but there are two men, they are here with what is obviously a family as being accepted to the world, maybe they could pass in some way as part of their family but I’m not sure, I’m not actually sure about that. She is the one who said to me actually in that same correspondence because this is another thing I found when I started with Touching the Art itself, so some of the writing like I said is about the art, some of it is about our relationship, some of it is about trauma, and some of it is about the falling out in our relationship, trauma of growing up with my father who sexually abused me, then some of it is the falling out that we’re talking about with Gladys. I found my letters to her and her letters to me which I photocopied at that time because when I remembered I was sexually abused, I realized that so much of my childhood I blocked out and I didn’t want to forget anything anymore. I didn’t know I was saving these letters for this reason 30 years later but here they are. She’s the one who says, “My best friend Keith Martin was gay.” At least, in that context of talking to me, but again this is way later, this is when I’m an adult, I mean it’s not way later, it is this moment when I was 19, 20, 21 but way later than 1956 when she was traveling with my father whose 13, so I can’t say for sure. I think it’s more about the work in a certain sense. The work is vulgar if it shows those things. But you’re right, it’s also about me but that’s the thing that’s so fascinating because I guess as a child, she nourished those exact things. Like you pointed out in that painting, when I was 13, she’d paint me with long eyelashes. It’s like this is a painting that she’s creating. She can do anything she wants with it but she didn’t choose to make me more masculine in any depiction of me. [laughs] They always, I would say, are dominantly feminine and I think it’s because that was what was beautiful to her, and part of that was having this gay men who are so influential in her life. I think in some ways, it even messed with politics because my writing is always a mess with politics and sexuality at the same time. It’s not one or the other. Like you said at the very beginning, in this book and I loved that you said this, you said it felt like all of the elements are inseparable and that’s always how it feels like to me. I think maybe that was vulgar to her. You can hide some things and show other things or I could graduate from Brown University, then get a PhD from another Ivy League institution, then maybe I could do these other things. [laughter] But I can’t live my life on my own terms, and I think that might be part of it too because she tried to live her life on her own terms. She was going to school to learn painting starting when she was 12, then she was essentially married. It was essentially an arranged marriage when she was 18 to a very wealthy man. She grew up in the border of working class and middle class but at that time in Baltimore, that was a very comfortable life but married a millionaire, then immediately got divorced and was banished, and moved to Florida, this is in the 30s, then met someone else she fell in love with and he found out that she’d been divorced, and she was banished from that world. When she married my grandfather in 1941, she was choosing middle-class respectability and that was what allowed her to create, and that was what I did not understand. I thought that by being an artist, that was synonymous with rejecting the world, rejecting the violence, rejecting the structures of power, rejecting the everyday life. I thought that I learned that from her but that isn’t what she believed. She believed that you could do that with middle-class respectability, within because that’s what allowed her to create, so that is something that I learned from writing the book.
DN: And you even complicate that I think because you go into the limited options at the time for women artists where each choice had significant liabilities, that her and many of her female artist peers never compared themselves to other women, it was always men that mattered. Artists like Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning who lived far more cosmopolitan, avant-garde, or Bohemian lifestyles than Gladys ended up believing more in the works of their husbands. Gladys does this other bargain where, by marrying a school teacher, gives her on the upside artistic autonomy. She is the artist. Her art is central. No husband is making the art. But as you say, she sacrifices a countercultural lifestyle in the process, living a life with many more norms being sought after outside of her art. I really love the way you explore this, for instance, in her critique group that she led, which she seemed great at asking questions really flexible, experimental, and open, and that she as a teacher wanted her students to be great or when you say that in art, she wanted imperfections to show but in life, she wanted them to be concealed, what we’ve already talked about is only I think the beginning regarding how Gladys falls short or represents ways of being in the world that you want to move away from, not toward. We’re going to look together at questions of aesthetics, class, race, and more. But even now, just with what we’ve already talked about where she has shown you freedom and possibility, and rejected you for going for it, the book continues to be a love letter to her art and to her, alongside it all, it almost insists upon one not negating the other in a way that I find incredible and inspirational as a mode of being. I was going to use this as a frame for the whole conversation, this aspect of the book. But when Johanna Hedva sent their question to me for you and they articulated it way better than I ever could, I’m going to let them ask it and have their words be our way to step forward into the rest of the conversation. Here is this really great question from past Between the Covers guest, Johanna Hedva.
Johanna Hedva: Hi Mattilda, it’s Johanna Hedva. I’m recording this question for you from a hotel room in Reykjavík. I’m on tour and over the last few weeks, I have been companioned by Touching the Art in two ways that have been very meaningful to me. The first is that it has been my traveling companion while I’ve been on tour. I’ve been reading it in airports and on planes, trains, buses, subways, many different hotel rooms. It’s been a perfect traveling friend for me as I’m trying to do this impossible career and life in art. Your inimitable way of traversing paradoxical, difficult, unanswerable thoughts in equal measure and equal space always with a sense of freedom has really helped me these days feel good about being on the road, about being in transit. The other way that it’s companioned me is that in these last weeks, my grandmother has been in the last weeks of her life. She died yesterday at the age of 93. She was my father’s mother, born in Korea. She immigrated to America when she was 28. She was one of my favorite people in the world. She was fierce, feisty, and independent. She grew her own vegetables, there was a big gold Buddha statue in her living room, and she was also a product of her upbringing. She was raised very poor on a farm. She never went to school. She was virulently homophobic and even violent toward my sibling and me for our queerness. So reading Touching the Art and the ways in which you make critical space at the same time that you reach with love for your own grandmother Gladys, and you make space for your relationship with her, as well as as her on her own terms, this was exactly the companion I needed. I say all of that because my question for you is informed by these two experiences that have been happening in parallel which feels fitting for what I want to ask you. I’ve also just been thinking about this all of these many years and I have read your work, so I’m thrilled to get to ask you finally. It has to do with this capacity that you have to not only hold but I would say to make space for both of this and of that to be true. I would characterize a primary element of your work by its capaciousness for insisting that two truths, multiple truths, even ones that are mutually exclusive or seem opposite of each other, that these can exist at the same time. Like your sentences often will include their inverse, their negation, or a question that undoes things. You’ll often spend a paragraph building an argument just to end it with a question that eviscerates everything that you just built. In Touching the Art, you frequently take the reader on this in-transit movement through how two things can be true at the same time even if they pull in opposite directions. I’m thinking of this in political terms, of course, and I’m thinking of it in pragmatic conditions that we have to deal with under capitalism, all of the paradoxes that exist in our world but I’m also thinking about emotional terms and maybe even mystical terms. Like I’m thinking about how we can love someone who also disagrees with fundamental elements of our existence. I’m thinking about how art can be for us and not for us at the same time. I’m also today thinking about what is possible to do with someone while they’re alive, then what is possible to do with someone after they’ve passed. I would just love to hear you talk a little bit about how you are so adept at holding and making unruly, messy space for binaries, oppositions, paradoxes, and things that would seemingly cancel each other out. I just want to know how you do it. How does it feel for you? Is it that it’s a space you move through? Is it a methodology? Are there any craft tricks that you do? I’m curious what do your sentences look like when you first write them down, then how do you get so much into them? Then they also somehow manage to always go somewhere else than where you start. I’m just curious to hear you talk a little bit about how you travel that space. Thank you. Signing off from Reykjavík.
MBS: Wow, that is so beautiful. [laughter] Well, first of all, Johanna, thank you for such an incredibly deep engagement with my work and with the world, in your work as well. What an honor that Touching the Art could accompany you on this tour and even in this moment where your grandmother died at basically the same age as mine of her complications. I just love everything that you say here about my work. It’s funny because Johanna and I were in conversation about Johanna’s recent book recently at Third Place Books in Seattle, and that book is about the art world among many other topics. It’s a novel but includes many relational aspects of Johanna’s life in the context of art. I was like, “Well, I wonder what Johanna is going to think about this.” [laughter] It’s so great to hear now. I think I want to start by saying that for me, I think the openness, it all comes from writing the book on its own terms, any book, starting without any sense of direction, structure, form, plot, or even the topics that are going to be included. Now, in the case of this book, I did have one specific thing which was that I knew it was going to be about my relationship with Gladys. I think this was part of Johanna’s question where it wasn’t until Gladys’ death in 2010 when I went to her house and I spent time with her art, and with everything that she had left, so her mineral collection, her furniture, photographs, her garden and in the same space, her studio, it’s all there, it’s all still there and it was in that moment where I realized what it would have meant to me for her to engage with my work as an artist. This is something that she refused. She refused. In her death, I of course realized that would never happen. I engaged with her work as an artist. I would go into her studio when I was visiting and she would ask me to look closely at a painting, and I would talk about my response, then I remember this one time, there was a bright blue and it was somewhere towards the left side of the painting, and I thought it was drawing too much attention. Now, she didn’t ask me that question but I just said, “Well, do you think that’s drawing too much attention?” She said, “Oh, no. I don’t think so.” Then she called me up later and she said, “I took it out, you were right.” She respected my opinion on her work but she refused to engage with mine. I think that ironically in many ways is the genesis of this book, that is where it starts because before that, and I couldn’t have written this book if she were still alive because I wouldn’t have realized I missed her, and because so much of our relationship had become like I will call her up unless I was talking about art. Like if I said, “Oh, I went to this mural show and here’s this great brochure,” she wanted to hear everything about that. [laughter] Everything else, forget it, like my life, no, no, no. She knew everything and I was wrong. But I think that realization in some ways, I didn’t realize it then because that was 2010. I started this book around 2017 but I think that yeah, just that realization and I think being in her studio, just realizing how much that space meant to me. It’s a literal space but more than that, it’s a space that’s still in me. I think for me, holding all the contradictions, it is a method but it’s also a way of surviving because I was not allowed those contradictions to exist as a child. I was sexually abused but the only way I could survive is to shut it out. I wouldn’t have lived otherwise, I couldn’t have lived. The only way I could survive my father’s anger, his rage, was to become cold and to just look at him, look at the painting on the wall behind him, “Oh, what was that you just said?” [laughs] In making art as a means of survival, I need all of it to exist, all of it. To me, I’m writing against the lie and the lie is that lie of upward mobility, the lie is that lie of class attainment, that the lie is that lie of straight acceptance. I want a sentence to be a living breathing thing. When the sentence takes me somewhere, I go there. But the juxtapositions in my writing, a lot of it comes through the editing because I write and write, and write and write, then I’ll find something and I’m like, “Oh, wow, there it is.” But then I’m like, “Does it need the rest?” Maybe not. Sometimes it does, sometimes it needs how you get there, sometimes it doesn’t. Part of that is the making space. I think in terms of the practice of writing for me and also writing because I deal with debilitating chronic health problems all the time, I’m always writing against the fact that I can’t write. [laughter] I think I say in the book, when they say, “What is your method? What is your creative practice?” it’s to try and try, and try, then somewhere in that gap between the limits of my body, somewhere in that gap, then I just leave it. Originally, there was more to that sentence but then I was like, “Oh, wait, this is the gap.” Writing into the gaps is totally important to me and those are the gaps between what we expect, and what we know, between what we feel and what we experience, if those could be two separate things, between what we remember and what we analytically expect between survival, and loss, between loss and capacity, between capacity and exploration, between exploration and fragmentation, between fragmentation and closure, between closure and empathy, between empathy and softness, between softness and brokenness, between brokenness and everything else. [laughs] I wanted Gladys to exist in all of our complications. She would never allow that for me but this is how I live. I think that in looking at aspects of her that she never talked about, she never talked about her childhood, she never talked about that first marriage, she never talked about where she grew up, even in Baltimore, just a few miles from where she lives. I knew Keith Martin was a best friend but I knew nothing about him. I didn’t even know my father knew him. [laughter] Even though I would have understood, of course, have I thought historically that she grew up in rigid segregation, like legal segregation. Also, I guess I write toward paradox and I want it all to exist because it exists. It’s just like if there is a paradox, we can’t solve it because it’s a paradox but we can go to all the complications, all the levels, all the intimacies, all of the impossibilities that exist. One of those impossibilities is that in writing about her and understanding her, her time, and the artists that were her contemporaries and Baltimore, the path of Jewish assimilation, White flight, and disinvestment which formed her and which she was a part of, in understanding Baltimore today and how those legacies continue in everyday experience, in understanding art and abstraction, and how it emerged in the moment of abstract expressionism and in the 1950s, in New York, in understanding even other artists like Frank O’Hara’s relationship with Grace Hartigan, a visual artist and a poet, a gay poet and a straight woman, and thinking about her relationship with her best friend Keith Martin, like in understanding all of these layers and complications, even talking to her best friend who was 101 and somehow so completely cogent, and told me all these things I would never know otherwise because I did not know them from Gladys but in understanding all these complications or at least laying them out because maybe I don’t understand them but I know that they exist and that is in itself is a form of understanding or a form of openness, I guess I’m always writing toward that openness. I think that the other paradox is that yes, that is a form of love, to tell the truth regardless, regardless always. The world is not built for that. The world does not want that ever. We have to do it anyway and that is an act of love. I think that is maybe what comes through in the book. [laughs]
DN: It really does. I want to stay with writing against the lie and this notion of telling the truth as being an act of love because I think one of the things that’s really interesting about the book also is we get other ways you’ve explored the same issues in previous books. For instance, you quote from your novel Pulling Taffy which has a fictionalized version of Gladys in it or when you engage with your psychiatrist father who sexually abused you, we think of the ways he’s appeared in other books prior to this and how the portrayals might differ. In Touching the Art, you say at one point that you don’t want your father in this book but then you realize you can’t have Gladys in the book without having her son. But thinking of the ways you were very out as a queer person in a way that Gladys wanted to put you back in, what happens with your family around your father, which here isn’t adapted into a fictional universe but handled head-on, the degree of gaslighting made me speechless really. Having recovered your memories of what happened, you decide, prior to confronting your father directly, to send your four grandparents and your sister your written account of what happened in your words, on your terms. But your family rallies around your father and starts to regularly see a false memory specialist together. Similarly, when you seek out therapy around the abuse, and your therapist, when they learn your dad wrote psychiatric books, asks to read one of them and after he reads it, tells you that your father couldn’t have done what you said he had done because he’s so rational in the book. It all made me think of a book by the psychiatrist R. D. Laing called Sanity, Madness and the Family which has these riveting case histories of families of schizophrenics from his work in the 1950s. I don’t think his theories are embraced or accepted and there is the problem of his notion of what’s called the schizophrenogenic mother in the book that seems sexist. But his idea that the so-called madness is found in the family system and that there was something intelligible about the testimony and behavior of the schizophrenic in the family when you placed it within the context of the family system and its narratives, he said things not necessarily from this specific book but generally like, “Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal,” or “What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience. It is radically estranged from the structure of being. The more one sees this, the more senseless it is to continue with generalized descriptions of supposedly specifically schizoid, schizophrenic, hysterical ‘mechanisms.” But in digging up these quotes for today, I discovered that Hilary Mantel, the novelist wrote the foreword of the recent reissue of this half-century-old book, that she cites this as the book that shaped her and helped her recognize the right to pick up a pen and be a writer. That each history was for her like a novel or a play in miniature, and that the family conversations seemed uncannily familiar to her, their swerves and evasions, and their doubleness and how all of these histories were of young women and with many of them, the families are telling them that they don’t want what they say that they want or telling them that what they’re experiencing isn’t happening. Mantel says, “For most of my life I had been told that I didn’t know how the world worked. That afternoon I decided I did know, after all.” I say all of this because you’ve traced certain ways around the way you write to how Gladys painted and collaged, her mode of art making. But I wonder what if anyways, this writing down of your own testimony on your own terms, in your own language, only to be disbelieved in a wholesale way a complete systemic family decision to protect itself from what it would have to reconsider if it believed you, if there were ways like Mantel describes for her, either positively or negatively, that this experience of your own testimony that is rejected, if it’s affected your approach to language and meaning as embodied in and within words.
MBS: Wow, that’s an amazing question. When I first I guess was coming of age as a writer, let’s say I guess around the same time as my [inaudible] with Gladys actually, like when I was 19, that’s when I found language poetry. At that time, I was like, “Wow,” because I felt like I wanted to change language. Now, I was not aware of the whole purity myth and language poetry. [laughter] But what I did know was like okay, you take all of your experience is how I interpret it and you condense it to five or six words on the page or maybe 10 pages that include 50 words in total, and that every single space, every lack, every gap, every arrangement, all of it mattered as much as anything else. Later, not later, I mean just a year later, when I started writing in prose because my friends were like, “Oh, my God, you have all these stories about turning tricks,” when I became a hooker, they’re like, “You need to write those down.” I was like, “I don’t want to write those down. I want to change language.” I was like, “Wait a second, I believe in an experiment, so I don’t want a formula, so let me try it.” I started writing them and I was like, “Oh, wow. These are good stories.” That’s when the voice came back into it. I guess language poetry taught me how to edit and also I still have that same consideration I think about spacing, about form, and about rejecting form or the conventions of form. Also, 19 was when I remembered that I was sexually abused by my father. All this is happening at once, now that I think about it. Now, that is actually probably I guess the language of poetry is about a year before that. But when I remembered that I was sexually abused by my father, I already knew that I hated him but I thought I hated him for something else. I thought I hated him for his rage and the way that he controlled everyone in the family through that rage and through that brutality. But I didn’t realize there was a whole other level or multiple levels and it was everything that had formed me, everything. That trauma is everything and my relationship to the world is formed by that, formed through that still. One of the things when I was working on this book, like you said, I’ve written about my father sexually abusing me in I think almost every book, fiction or non-fiction and it takes different forms over time. But one of the things in this book, when I find those letters between me and Gladys, and when I say find, I have them in a file cabinet. I filed them. I know I have them but I wasn’t thinking about it. I was like, “Oh, wait, I have some letters. Let me look.” “Oh, look, here they all are mapping out in my own words and in her own words right then.” That is a gift to have that documentation and then my letter that I wrote to the family that you mentioned, I have that. Strangely, that was harder to find because I had to find it on a computer but in the letters, some of the things that Gladys says, and that’s the thing in writing the book because I’m writing the book, I’m starting with her art and so I’m starting with this place of pleasure, lightness, and excitement and then when trauma comes into it, I’m like, “Oh, no.” [laughter] Now, obviously, I had to have known it was going to be there somewhere, and this is what I mean also I think in response to Johanna’s question too but whatever comes in, I let it in. It belongs there. I think a different way to write a book would be like, “Oh, no, that doesn’t belong here. That would be my grandmother’s way to write the book [laughter] or a more conventional biographical impulse, or even conventional memoir impulse, or maybe the conventional memoir impulse would write only the trauma. When the trauma comes in and I’m writing about the art, it’s kind of an antidote in a certain way and it’s also an expression. The text opens up to include these other texts. Her letters to me at that time, especially there’s one where she said, oh, I wish I could remember the quote but it’s like she’s talking about the trauma that I have caused by confronting my father about sexually abusing me, not the trauma that he has caused by the abuse itself but the trauma that I have caused by telling the truth and confronting the lie, the lie which is the family that you’re talking about. That shocked me. I mean I blocked that out entirely. [laughs] I remembered her initial reaction which was to say, called me up after she got the letter and she said, “If this is true, how do I go on living?” In my sense at the time, I thought that was an honest response, now I don’t know that I think that’s honest, it’s just manipulative. But at the time, I said, “Well, it is true and I want you to go on living.” But I think she couldn’t even allow my own trauma to be mine, let alone the reality of the abuse which, like you said, my mother, her rally around this so-called false memory expert and their job, the job of that person is to say that my truth, the truth is a lie, how do they bring me back to the family, that’s the question. How do they bring me back to the family? How do they continue the violence permanently? Your question about form is a really interesting one. I think I already had rejected the conventional form of writing. But in sending them my confrontation letter, which is long, I can’t remember but it’s like 20 pages, talking about what I had experienced, how I was healing, and saying that I would never speak to my father again unless he could come to terms with it, and I gave that to him in person knowing that he has access to every possible way. No one has more access. [laughs] I’m coming to terms with it and refuse that. I knew that would happen but knowing it and then experiencing are two different things and so I think that trauma, and that was I think a new layer in a certain sense in this book for me is these letters from Gladys and feeling that and that process of the writing. It’s very interesting, and in writing it, I’m like, “Oh, it’s heartbreaking. I’m having my heart broken all over again.” But the experience of talking about it now is actually grounding and actually clarifying. I’ll say one more thing which I think makes it even worse but I don’t know that they didn’t believe me. I know what they chose to do. They chose to support him over me but I don’t know if that’s because they didn’t believe me. I think that makes it worse. I think if I had to choose yes or no, I think they believed me, especially my two grandmothers. I think they believed me and they chose respectability and this lie of the family that you’re talking about, they chose that violence over me, they had to protect that. They had to protect that and they had to protect him. That’s something that, of course, I will always live with. I’m also really glad that I could express that in all of its complications within this book that is also centrally about my relationship with Gladys.
DN: Yeah, and miraculously continues to be a love letter through it all somehow. I want to transition to bringing the lie outside of the family into the city, into the neighborhoods, and the museums of Baltimore. I go on a maybe monthly walk with with Cal Angus, the writer who’s been on the show and who’s the founder and editor of smoke and mold, who interviewed you while also on a walk in Seattle. They reminded me of how city-centric your works are, The End of San Francisco obviously about San Francisco, Sketchtasy about Boston, The Freezer Door about Seattle, and this book Baltimore, and it’s clear reading the book that you moved to Baltimore temporarily as part of writing the book, that being there, living there seems to be an important part of it that perhaps just like literally touching Gladys’ art is an essential part of the ekphrastic writing that you needed to have your feet touching the ground in the place that you were writing about and I want to hear about that as part of this question. But I wanted to read some things that you’ve said about other cities. In your 2020 BOMB interview, you say, “Seattle is an ironic place for me because people here are in an urban environment, but they act like they’re in the suburbs. They don’t want any unplanned interaction. They don’t want anything to jar them or make them uncomfortable or feel a little weird or even feel amazing and transformed. Those are the reasons to live in a city, at least for me. The dream of the city is that it’s a place where you find everything and everyone that you never imagined. When everything is gated, that’s impossible. In Seattle, we have a term for this called the Seattle freeze. It’s like, you’re walking down the street and someone sees you, but they just look right through you with a white picket fence in their eyes. San Francisco is the city that formed me. What was always unique for me about San Francisco was that I’d just walk down the street and find the people who recognized me, people who were like, You’re one of us—you’re outside of the world and we’re in the world together. But that’s so, so, so much harder to find there now. And that’s true of every gentrified city.” Thinking of your descriptions of Seattle now and San Francisco in the 90s, I want to hear about this methodology of needing to be there in Baltimore and all these other places. But also talk to us about what it was like for you to move around in and through the streets and spaces of Baltimore, how you would speak the Baltimore experience for you in a similar way to the way I just quoted you speaking about the Seattle and San Francisco experiences.
MBS: Oh, I love that. Yeah, I think all of my work is place-based. After I was doing this exploration of Touching the Art literally and writing what came through, I realized, “Well, I need to move to Baltimore to see what will come through there because I know something’s going to change.” Some of that was about tracing things that were literally very specifically about Gladys. At the Baltimore Museum of Art, they have a scrapbook of her in their archive of her that she kept of all her press clippings from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, or like some paintings. There’s a permanent collection of her art at the University of Maryland, talking to her students, going over to her next-door neighbor’s house, spending time with them, going to places that we went to when I was a kid. Some of it was about my experience just being in Baltimore myself. It was interesting, even just planning to go there figuring out where I was going to live, I thought, “Oh, this is a city that is not gentrified like Seattle, San Francisco, or New York,” so I was like, “Oh, I’m going to find the nicest, the most beautiful apartment. It’s going to be really cheap.” It was very hard to find a temporary apartment at least and it was not cheap. I was like, “Well, what the hell is driving this?” Some of my first experiences in Baltimore just like walking around the neighborhood where I was living, which was Charles Village and one of the first things I noticed is that unlike in Seattle, as you described, where people see you on the street and they look through you or turn the other way even if you know them, in Baltimore, people really want to interact. I actually love that even though half of it was positive and half it was negative. I enjoy that much more. That was one of the first kinds of things that came through. That quote that you read from me about when I first moved to San Francisco and that experience of finding other people like me on the street, I think I’m always searching for that. That’s my experience still. That’s still what I want all the time [laughs] and I’m always feeling the lack. Now, Baltimore, there was more of that and more potential in a way in these limited strips of Baltimore but for these connections across the limitations of identity, race, and class and in this limited, but when I say limited, I mean Baltimore is a city that is still mostly in collapse and that is because of decades of racist disinvestment, so redlining, structural disinvestment, and hyper policing. There are neighborhoods in Baltimore, I would say half of Baltimore where you go block after block after block, and half of the buildings are boarded up or have burned down and these are almost entirely Black neighborhoods. That experience of Baltimore, which I knew but it’s different to know, and in one of those neighborhoods actually because Gladys never talked about where she grew up and I asked her once, “Do you ever go back to the neighborhood where you grew up?” and she said, “You can’t.” I said, “What do you mean? Does it not exist anymore?” and she said, “You just can’t.” I knew that meant that it had become a Black neighborhood and that her racism prevented her from ever going back there. This is like just a few miles from where she was living then but it had become unimaginable. I didn’t actually know where that was until I talked to her best friend who is still alive, and is 101. She mentioned the street that Gladys grew up on. She didn’t have the address so I went with a friend and we were just driving down the street to try to figure it out and it was one of those neighborhoods where the majority of the buildings are boarded up or burned down. Every now and then, you see a really nice building, you’re like, “Oh, this is nice. It’s a liquor store.” Occasionally, there might be one or two blocks that have been preserved by a nonprofit. But mostly, it’s that experience. There are kids just in the middle of the street. There are people nodding off. But it’s mostly abandoned. I think, “Okay, well, this is the neighborhood where she grew up,” and then I found the neighborhood where she raised my father, which was also a Black neighborhood that she never went back to. But that neighborhood was probably very similar to what it had been like when she grew up there. It was still these very well-kept middle-class houses but the difference was that it was an all-Black neighborhood now. I think that she did not know the difference between those neighborhoods. That was how much her racism prevented her from experiencing the city where she lived her entire life. She was born in 1917, in 1919 when she was two, she moved to Baltimore and she lived there until her death in 2010. I should say my first experience at Baltimore of realization was of how blatantly artists are used as tools of displacement because there was this neighborhood that I was walking through a lot, which is now called Station North, that’s the gentrification term, it was declared an Arts District by the city. You have a few of these institutions like this theater I was going to a lot where you walk in, it’s been gutted and it’s clearly designed by an architect and I was like, “What the hell? How did this happen?” I looked it up, I think that was $18 million of investment. This is $18 million for a theater in a neighborhood, in a city that’s mostly in collapse, in a neighborhood where just across the street you have Black people nodding off on the stoop because of decades of disinvestment because of this pattern of White flight but at the same time, the city is like, “Oh, this is an Arts District,” and then that brings in the developers, the funding. But does it change the conditions for most people in the neighborhood? It definitely makes the property taxes higher so that Black people who have owned their houses for generations may no longer be able to live there, but does it improve the condition of people who don’t have access perhaps to going to the theater, to going to the new bars, or to deciding that the neighborhood is now queued and ready for renovation? That experience of Touching the Art, this is the power structure, Touching the Artists in service of displacement. Then that of course happens everywhere but there it felt like a much more top-down experience. I would not have known that in that way unless I was there. There are a lot of things like that that sometimes literally about going to the Baltimore Museum of Art and finding this Mark Bradford show and Mark Bradford is a gay Black abstract artist making work now and going to the show, I don’t think I knew anything about him but I’m in the neighborhood, I’m in the Baltimore Museum of Art all the time, partially to do research, partially because it’s a free museum and like a free museum is the kind that matters because you can just walk in and out anytime. I go to the show and it’s right after I talked to this curator who had worked on Gladys’ retrospective at the University of Maryland and the curator was telling me that the work that moved him the most of hers was from the 1950s. That really surprised me actually because I felt like that was before she had figured out her own style. So I asked him about that, “Well, don’t you think her work is the 60s and the 70s?” He said, “Oh, well, maybe as critics, we’re trained to see work that is more brooding as important and then once it becomes colorful, it becomes decorative.” I actually had not thought of the fact, I didn’t think that color could remove your art from meaning because of course decorative art means feminine and brooding is masculine. Of course, the masculine art is what means something. I was thinking about abstraction and I was like, “Well, what could be more decorative than abstraction as a whole now?” You see a Rothko, a Pollock, or a Mondrian and it’s decorative. This is very familiar. It’s like it means a particular thing. Now it didn’t mean that when they created it but I was like, “Well, maybe all abstract art is decorative.” I went to the show and it knocked me out, blew me away. I was like, “Oh, okay, well, that’s the experience of abstraction. It can be the experience of abstraction.” There were aspects actually of his work that connect to Gladys’ work but they have no direct connection. I doubt that they ever encountered one another or one another’s work. But there were aspects of the sensibility certainly. But more than that, it was just this is art that’s touching me and so I wrote about it without knowing why except that I knew that it was touching me. Much later in the process, towards the end of writing the book, when I’m writing about this experience, I guess another thing later on when I’m trying to understand because Gladys grew up under strict legal segregation so that means almost every aspect of life, schools, parks, stores, healthcare, housing, it’s all segregated, and she grew up three blocks from the line that legally separated Black from White homeowners or renters and Jewish people at that time also could only live in a certain segment so the path of White flight for Jews was to move in that direction because that was where they could go and then those were the neighborhoods that became like affluent Jewish neighborhoods. But she was just three blocks across that line in a White Christian neighborhood. I was like, “What was that experience like?” Again, I don’t think I would have thought of that question except that I had gone to that neighborhood. When I was thinking of that question much later, I realized, “Well, Billie Holiday was essentially an exact contemporary of Gladys’.” I didn’t realize that she grew up in Baltimore until she was about 13 or 14. I started looking into Billie Holiday, reading all these books about her and there’s this one line in her memoir where she says, “In Baltimore, the whorehouse was the only place where White and Black people could interact in any natural way.” I was like, “Oh, my God, that’s it. That’s it. Now I understand.” Much later when I was thinking about Mark Bradford’s show, I realized, “Oh, this show is called Tomorrow Is Another Day,” and that is the last line in Gone with the Wind. Now Gone with the Wind, the most successful movie of all time, and what is the movie about, it’s about aggrandizing the legacy of the Confederacy. His show, he says, is about the unfinished project of reconstruction. I realize that’s what I’m writing about. Then it circles back to him. This isn’t exactly answering the question you asked but I think that that’s the structure of the book. It’s like that I find something and I explore it, and it could be my own memory, it could be Gladys’ art, it could be my experience of being in Baltimore, it could be research that I do, and it all comes in there. Of course, I’m shaping it later and the shape comes from all of these parts coming together and also allowing to exist apart so they’re together and apart and it follows this elliptical structure and part of that elliptical structure is me figuring things out, but also part of it is the experience of walking through a city, maybe the book itself, not just my experience in Baltimore which is a very specific part of the book where I am literally walking through the city and having experiences, some of which are like I go dancing and then my experience of dancing, which is also touching the art or my experience of literally seeing art, my experience of displacement, or thinking about all those legacies together. But also I think the book itself in certain ways, just like it is like perhaps making a collage or making a work of visual art, maybe it’s also like that experience of a city that I’m always looking for. When you find that sudden moment, that changes everything.
DN: I actually want to ask a couple of questions about the Jewish experience in specific in relation both to Whiteness and anti-Blackness. In a past interview before this book, you say, “I think I’m writing through the failure of queer dreams to live up to their potential. The way there’s this incredible rhetoric in oppositional queer worlds about accountability, mutuality, respect, negotiation, transformation, and fluidity, but often the rhetoric camouflages hypocrisy and violence and that has made it so that I no longer believe in these worlds. I don’t want new hierarchies, I want an end to all hierarchies. I don’t want to become the police, I want to end policing in all its forms. So I want the dream of queer to live up to its potential. And I think part of this is to honestly describe, in the most embodied way possible, the betrayal as well as the possibility. So that we can get somewhere else.” I love this and I also feel like this is the same spirit behind you puncturing this idea that Jews, in your mind, think of themselves automatically on the side of social justice. I don’t know if that is exactly my experience. I might say, and maybe it’s a different way of saying the same thing, that Jews have a hard time ever seeing themselves as the oppressor. But either way, I think about the notion of confirmation bias, of discovering what you seek out to find thinking about a Jewish confirmation bias. I grew up knowing about Abraham Joshua Heschel, his close friendship with Martin Luther King. Heschel putting his body on the line and marches with MLK in the front row over the bridge in Selma as one example, or that 40% to 50% of the northern White Freedom Writers were Jewish who risked their lives going south to register Black voters and a couple of them dying for it, or that immigrant Jews were among John Brown’s anti-slavery fighters in Kansas. But I didn’t grow up knowing that the first Jewish Cabinet member in the United States was the Sephardic Jew Judah Philip Benjamin who served as the Attorney General Secretary of War and Secretary of State for the Confederate Army. I learned about prejudicial housing covenants against Jews but not Jewish discriminatory real estate practices. I feel like much as you do with liberatory queer rhetoric versus on-the-ground queer realities, to borrow Hedva’s words, you not only place us in a place of complexity and contradiction without resolving it, you make this space, the weird reality that Jewish people couldn’t for a long time live in certain parts of Baltimore and yet Jewish landlords enforce both racist and anti-Semitic housing covenants, or how Jews in Baltimore overwhelmingly supported slavery even driving an anti-slavery Rabbi out of town. I don’t think you would use this language, Mattilda, but to me, this gesture that Hedva articulates so well, of holding and making spaces like this, is a very Jewish gesture, both Talmudic, which is dialectical with interpretation, annotation, and all done in the spirit of and/or this and that rather than either-or, but also thinking about the four levels of interpretation in the Torah that the lowest level is the literal and that all four levels exist simultaneously, but also think back to the family gaslighting and the ways families can form and endure around a lie when you say about your own Jewish family silences, “What does it mean not to acknowledge the obvious facts made invisible by the repetition of a lie, over and over again until it becomes an accepted truth? The agreement to lie to one another, even with the truth right there. The repetition of these white lies as family history.” We can think of that around the letter that you sent but we can think about how they never talked about being Jews from the south, and the other silences, like you go to the Jewish Museum and it’s got a very muddled and weird presentation of Jewish memory, not even mentioning the pogroms that most Baltimore Jews had fled. But I guess my question for you is you tell us in the book of your own uneasiness around being in Jewish spaces and how exploring Baltimore Jewish history in specific helped you to understand why. I wondered if you could just speak more into that for us about how the exploration was helpful and the things that you learned about Jewish history, which are complex and contradictory, how they helped you feel like it explained some of your own emotional experiences when you were in Jewish spaces.
MBS: Yes. Thank you for that. As a kid, I grew up in a very assimilated family. My parents were non-religious but they gave me the option to go to Hebrew school and so I went to Hebrew school, and I kind of loved it as a kid. I loved it because of the language actually, which is ironic considering now what I know about Hebrew. [laughter] But it was a reformed temple and so you learned how to read Hebrew but not what it meant. That aspect, that puzzle, I really enjoyed, and the historical aspect too, certain things like this is around the time of like the Refusenik Jews. I remember writing the school paper, I think I was in fourth or fifth grade about the Refusenik Jews in the Soviet Union. My teachers loved it. I read it in assembly and also, you’re planting trees in the Negev desert, supposedly to save the desert. [laughs] I didn’t know that the legacy, the idea of the Refusenik Jews, or that legacy was used by Reagan to bolster his anti-communist hysteria. I didn’t know that when they said we’re planting trees in the Negev desert, that was because of the demolition of, removal, and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages. I really was very proud of my Jewish heritage that in many ways I was choosing because my parents were not observant. I had a bar mitzvah and I was going to have a confirmation, but that was the time period when I just decided that I didn’t believe in God. Even that, that’s very Jewish, but I didn’t know this history, I didn’t know a history of atheist Jews so I rejected the whole thing in that moment. Part of that was about not believing in God but the rest of it was about seeing the misogyny and especially the racism in my birth family. One way I just remember so specifically, especially in the side of the family that was more observant and celebrating Passover and going to their house, I loved those rituals, I was the one that sang the prayers. I think I was the youngest, no, I was not the youngest actually, the youngest are supposed to sing the prayers but I remember this very specific visceral memory, well, one thing I remember is those family members, they would switch to Yiddish to say racist things about Black people. I thought at that time, I was like, “Oh, that’s what Yiddish is for.” [laughter] I did not even realize what the history of Yiddish was. I think that’s that violence of assimilation. I think your connection to what I say about the dream of queer is totally true because I think that my suspicion and horror of assimilation comes earlier, it comes from that experience of Jewish assimilation. I remember one time, it was Roots was on TV, it was like a re-broadcast of Roots. This is that contradiction that you’re talking about, everyone was so excited, they’re all so excited, and I’m like, “I’m not watching this with these racists.” At the same time, they’d switch to Yiddish to say racist things, but why are they excited about watching Roots?” I think when I learn the history of Jewish assimilation in Baltimore, it makes everything make more sense because like we always hear about Jews leading the unions but we don’t hear about Jews running the sweatshops. [laughter]
DN: For sure.
MBS: In Baltimore in particular, when I went to the Jewish Museum and I asked about structural racism and they interpreted my question as being about racism against Jews, which did exist but that wasn’t my question. Well, the role of Jews in White flight, that was my question. They interpreted that, they were like, “Oh, here’s where Jews couldn’t own property.” I know that Gladys was proud of owning property in the neighborhood that did not have covenants or policies restricting Jewish home ownership. She called that a neighborhood that was not segregated but it was almost entirely segregated, maybe not against Jews but certainly against Black people, and learning the deeper history of that. Here, and this is true of most cities in the US, but speaking specifically about Baltimore, there’s a very obvious opportunity to learn the palpable lessons of your own history and apply it. The original neighborhoods where Jews were allowed to own property, the only neighborhoods, the same, it’s like everyone who was excluded was in those neighborhoods. Even this notion of the majority of the city Jews were not allowed to own property. When Jews have the option to move somewhere else, that participation in White flight and assimilation as the only option which is what has destroyed so much of the city, not just their participation but White people as a whole. But Jews did not have to become part of White people. Jews were not considered Whites but I think beyond that, those individual choices, just this history that I did not know, like you pointed out, I didn’t even think of my family as coming from the South because they never talked about it that way, but Baltimore was in the South, parts of my family from Virginia. So because I never thought of it as a South, I never even thought of them experiencing segregation. Even my father, my mother too, they grew up in segregated schools until they were middle school, like legally segregated schools.
DN: This isn’t really a question but it made me think of my own family’s experience, anti-Blackness in my own family. I’m guessing you would agree that all of your books deal with gentrification, White flight, disinvestment, and other things but I feel like Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco have more in common with each other than Baltimore has in common with them and the ways that it manifests. But I’m thinking about my family who are all from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I grew up in Colorado. I had a very different Jewish experience than they did in the entire absence of a Jewish community and being very othered. But I would go visit my grandparents in Wisconsin every year growing up. My grandparents didn’t switch into Yiddish to be racist but a lot of what you said reminded me of my own family in the sense that I didn’t know until I was an adult that Milwaukee, a city that is 40% Black, is the most racially segregated city in the United States. I hadn’t yet heard the Code Switch Podcast Episode called Why Is Milwaukee So Bad For Black People? But I knew all the Jewish neighborhoods were now Black neighborhoods and that it felt like everyone there in the city stuck to their enclaves in a way that felt really extreme to me as a kid. I remember the rare times driving through Black neighborhoods and my grandmother would narrate something like, “Look how terrible they keep their houses and their lawns,” and I would look out the window of the car and see perfectly well-tended middle-class homes and would be very perplexed. But we’d always get a lecture too, my sister and I, each year never to marry a Brown or Black person because it wouldn’t be fair to our children who wouldn’t belong to either place. But I guess I wanted to underscore this aspect of Jews who are White, because there are Black Jews, Latinx Jews, and Asian Jews in the United States but Jews that are White who accepted Whiteness and how that also was accepting anti-Blackness.
MBS: I think what was so interesting for me in working on this book was learning a history that was entirely denied, even while that was existing right there. I think that ongoing legacy of segregation in particular, because when I went to Baltimore, I went there for two reasons with my family as a kid, one was to visit my grandmother in Mount Washington which is a mostly White enclave, and the other was because I was forced to go to baseball games with my father in his childhood’s best friend in Rodgers Forge, a White enclave, and maybe went to the aquarium. We might want to go to the art gallery. It’s just like the rest of Baltimore didn’t exist. Growing up in DC, it’s the same way. The very affluent upper Northwest was very familiar to me, the rest of DC I didn’t know it all. I think the way that racism played out in everyday experiences in my childhood was in places you can’t go. When I was a teenager and I started going to clubs and I was going to these neighborhoods where I supposedly couldn’t go and the idea was you would die, but the real fear is experience. The real fear is that you will be changed by that experience. I think that is the part of segregation or that segregated mentality that Gladys would have seen herself as certainly liberal and liberated. But at the same time, we were at a gas station and a Black person walks up and she locks the doors, or when I came to visit her when I was 20 and I wanted to explore Baltimore as a queer person and so I took the train downtown to the gay neighborhood, she was like panicked that I was going to be killed because I was going to downtown Baltimore. That neighbor was actually like cutesy, like little antique shops but it was beyond the pale. [laughter] I think that legacy of segregation which is everyday segregation, which continues to this day, that’s one aspect. Then there’s the structural level and that’s one of the levels that I’m exploring in the book when I’m thinking historically. Thinking about the active participation of Jews in these racist systems even as they are also being punished in certain ways by those same systems, that is the tragedy to me and the contradiction that I think should be at the center of Jewish analysis and Jewish cultural life, not the mythology that Jews were always on the side of social justice, not just among liberal mainstream Jews but among leftist Jews. We need it all. We need all of that history. I was denied the history of radical Jews too. I knew nothing. I knew nothing about radical Jews.
DN: Yeah. I didn’t either.
MBS: That was a denial, and knowing that could have helped me to understand myself and my legacy in a different way. But I don’t want just that information. I need the information about how Jews have been active participants in structural racism and how that continues now because how else can we ever change it? In the book, the way it comes in is I’m thinking about Gladys’ legacy and how she did not choose when she was born to be part of this legacy or even in the house where she grew up when her family decided they were moving because, I can’t say why they moved but I do know that it happened just after the neighborhood was downgraded in the redlining system and that the phrase they have on that redlining map is “Danger of Negro encroachment,” and then a few years later, her family and every other White person in that neighborhood essentially move. They just get up and leave. Now part of that is structural so they are victims but part of it is they actively—not they necessarily but other Jews perhaps or maybe they too—participate. Jews both were victims of redlining and actively benefited. I think one of the people I talk about in the book, Joseph Meyerhoff who was the patron of the Symphony and one of Baltimore’s largest developers, is actively enforcing not just anti-Black exclusion in his developments but anti-Semitic exclusion because that’s how he can become part of the ruling class essentially. That complicity is shocking or I shouldn’t even say shocking because it’s typical too, it’s totally typical but that’s upward mobility. I understood as a child that myth of upward mobility, which is upward mobility at any cost, a cost to my body, to my life, to anyone in the world. I understood it on an embodied level myself. I knew to myself that I was being squashed, that if I had to fit myself into that, that would demolish the potential for me to flourish but I did not understand or know about these larger structural issues. It’s all the same thing. I had no idea that the vast majority of Baltimore Jews sided with the Confederates, the vast majority of all White people. That’s why, because they were assimilating into White supremacy. Jewish businesspeople were smuggling goods to the Confederacy because Baltimore was under Union occupation during the Civil War. None of that did I know anything about. [laughter] But how could I if I didn’t even know that my relatives grew up in the South? Because the South was something that could never be talked about even as you are there. I grew up in the South. DC is the South, [laughs] but so is Boston. This country is formed by that segregated mentality. Segregation plays out different ways in different places and different spaces but it is what this country is formed on.
DN: Well, let’s hold all of that and I want to, in light of it, talk about what is my favorite part of the book which we haven’t yet discussed, which I would call the speculative element of Touching the Art. I think of my conversation with Adrienne Maree Brown which was about social justice and science fiction and how she said all organizing is science fiction, it’s imagining and otherwise, and how the imagination is essential to it. I think the most exhilarating part of your book has this element in it, and as a first step to exploring that, we have a question which is more open-ended than how I’m prefacing it, which may or may not relate to what we talk about afterwards but it feels connected. This is a question from past Between the Covers guest Cal Angus, the author of A Natural History of Transition, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction as well as the founder and managing editor of the journal smoke and mold that creates a space for the narrative possibilities that trans lives can bring to the intersection of nature and culture. Here’s Cal’s question.
Callum Angus: Hello, Mattilda. This is Cal. I’m very happy to be able to ask you this question today. Your work has accompanied me through most of my adult life at this point and still each time I finish another book of yours, I feel different than I did before. My notion of what can be written down is changed by your work. My question for you is in what emotional place do you greet your readers? And by the end of one of your books, where do you hope they have arrived? But more importantly, where have you, what has the art done to you both with this book and past books? It seems to me that these are things you think about consciously while writing but even if they’re not, maybe you can make something up. Thank you, Mattilda, for another true gift with Touching the Art. Much love.
MBS: Oh, thank you so much for that beautiful question. [laughs] Well, and I like also David what you said, the Adrienne Maree Brown quote, all organizing is speculative. Maybe I’ll start there actually because I think we’re taught that speculative writing is one particular thing, which is a very plot-based structure usually. Now my writing is always resisting plot, [laughs] but isn’t that speculative itself? But anyway, the question of where I start emotionally and where I end up, it’s an interesting one. I think it’s always different with each book but I know that I write through loss and I’m also writing toward connection. Those two things are probably always true but have become more and more true because the things I used to rely on no longer hold me in the same way, which are organizing and friendships. But my relationship with writing and specifically writing into vulnerability has allowed for the kinds of connections that I’m always dreaming of, whether that’s in the moment of the writing, in the moment of the reading, or in the moment of connecting with other people connecting with these gaps, these places of loss, longing, or desperation, [laughter] and putting it all out there. With Touching the Art, I think I started with that very specific exploration about my relationship with Gladys and it did start with her art, and her art is something that I treasure and that still inspires in me that feeling of childlike excitement. So maybe I started in certain ways with that childlike excitement or wanting to move toward that. Because I think that’s something that I was denied as a child, I could experience it in her studio but mostly, I was denied it because of being sexually abused by my father because my vulnerability would always be met with violence. In connecting with him, my father, the person who’s supposed to be protecting me, we’re taught I think sometimes in therapy, they’re like, “Find that place you had as a child of safety,” I didn’t have it. It never existed. It’s not there. I have to imagine it somehow but that’s now. I did not have it. It will never be there. In some ways, writing is a way to experience a possibility of existing that was not possible for me. It still exists in that place of impossibility. I feel like I’m writing into that impossibility of survival, now even as I’m writing. In writing it, it becomes possible maybe, [laughter] and I love hearing that people connect to it and it feels that way. I don’t know. I think that question of how do I feel at the beginning and then how do I feel at the end is a really interesting one, which I preserve in the book. Because by the end of the book, I’m immersed in this research which is not typical of my writing because I usually am writing what I know but I don’t know the history as I’m writing the book, the history of Jewish assimilation and White flight. I don’t know the history of the Women of Abstract Expressionism. I don’t know the history of Baltimore until I’m doing all this research. By the end, I’m just spinning in all of it and I’ve read seven books about Billie Holiday. I could read seven more. [laughter] They’re fascinating, but I’m like, “Where do I stop? Where does it stop?” [laughter] I’m just circling around and just noticing details. Some of those things, like that realization about Mark Bradford and him even saying abstraction is emerging at the same time as, what does he say exactly? But essentially, abstraction emerging alongside the same time as structural racism but he has something very specific that I can’t remember at the moment. Where was I going with that exactly? I guess just this feeling of okay, all these things coming together, and all the loose ends that I could continue to pursue forever. A book has no ending. The book ends but ideally, a book has no ending. I think that’s where it leaves me with all of these possibilities. Some of them I state, I’m like—well, I’m trying to remember how it all comes together so now as I’m thinking about it, I’m like, “How does it all come together?” [laughter] But I can remember little elements. Maybe tell me more about that speculative question because I think that’s going to tell me those details.
DN: Okay. You’ve called this by far your most research-heavy book, that it required the most research, all this true material. But I feel like the book is speculative non-fiction, not to mean that what you research and give us isn’t true, and I know that non-fiction and speculative or science fictional and non-fiction don’t go together but part of the way you write Black history of Baltimore in this book is straight ahead history but it’s also this beautiful gesture against, I think, the inevitability of history, the way you map Black history, layering it over Gladys’ history, as one example, for instance, say that Freddie Gray was arrested five blocks from Gladys’ childhood home, arrested for legal possession of a knife and then dying from injuries inflicted by the police shortly after while in custody, or you exploring in wonderful detail Billie Holiday’s Baltimore which, as you’ve said, coexists with Gladys’. But this way in which I feel like you’re pushing them together and part of how you do that is we get hints of a Jewish otherwise, who knows, maybe that could have been an otherwise for Gladys, the communist Jewish school teacher who wrote the song Strange Fruit, the song Billie Holiday considered her defining signature song, of the song she was punished for singing. Or Cafe Society in New York City, an integrated club founded by leftist Jews and also an important venue for holiday and other Black performers which, by extension, made me think of Benny Goodman who had one of the first, and certainly one of the most high-profile integrated bands. All this is real history but by overlaying it with Gladys’, it does echo against all of these what ifs about her own life, which you extend to regarding her and the artist Grace Hartigan who you’ve mentioned a couple of times, the most famous artist in Baltimore, a friend of Frank O’Hara, and yet they were never friends, Gladys and Grace, and yet you place their thoughts side by side with Grace saying, “The difference between abstraction and nature painting was that one is working out of nature, the other into nature,” and Gladys saying that nature is art and that’s what it is. It doesn’t know any boundaries. It can do anything and it does what it wants and it’s always beautiful. They didn’t say this to each other and yet you imagine them talking with each other in this way, what could they have learned, what could they have shared, what did they lose by not talking? I think it all echoes back against not only what Gladys has lost by embracing bourgeois norms but what she could have fully been, and also what you and her could have fully been if she had stepped out of the constraints of family and heteronormativity and Whiteness. When you read the book, you sense the love that you have which endures of her paintings, the love of the radicalness of her approach to art, but in a way, it feels like the true love you’re expressing is towards this imagined otherwise she could have had, you’re imagining it for us and maybe for her. That isn’t science fictional in the normal sense of it but I think it is in the way that all organizing is science fictional for Adrienne Maree Brown. It’s like this gift toward the future somehow, that Touching the Art, you’ve made these different people who didn’t touch touch.
MBS: Oh, I love that so much, making these different people who didn’t touch touch. Thank you. [laughter] Yeah, Grace Hartigan is fascinating. I definitely didn’t know I was going to write anything about Grace Hartigan. But when I was in Baltimore and I was asking people about Gladys and I said, “Well, did she ever talk about other artists?” and people could not remember really. But if they did remember, they always had one anecdote about Grace Hartigan and this happened three or four times, the only person anyone ever remembered, always something that she had said about Grace Hartigan, and it was always scathing, [laughter] completely scathing. I’m like, “Oh, well, that’s a relationship.” I also learned from one of her students that Grace Hartigan was at the opening of Gladys’ retrospective and that they frequently saw each other at openings. They were not friends but they encountered one another. In that experience of not friends and that scathing disapproval, I’m like, “Wow, what is [this]?” and there’s so many of these near misses that I will never know probably, I will never know, who knows? Maybe someone will approach me. I tried to get in touch with Grace Hartigan’s executive who might know these details but I don’t know why exactly but it’s not someone I was able to talk to. Because the thing about Gladys and most women artists of that generation or most artists period, but they’re rather not documented in the public records. Grace Hartigan has been canonized and so her life is documented. She kept coming up even in me just reading like the first book I started reading about abstract expressionism was Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, and this is an 800-page history where she’s talking very specifically about five women artists and it starts with Grace Hartigan. It starts with her having a conversation with Grace Hartigan in Baltimore, [laughs] and Grace talking about this world that she was a part of that Mary Gabriel was like, “Whoa,” which is the world of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and the early abstract expressionism in New York. Mary Gabriel was like, “Whoa, I didn’t even realize women were in that world,” because they’ve been removed from the history. I knew that Gladys did not like Grace’s work and that I know. But this is Grace’s later work where it became figurative. Gladys didn’t like figurative work because she thought it was derivative, and Grace Hartigan was deliberately a derivative. She wanted to explore the Old Masters through a new form in her later work. But I became fascinated by Grace Hartigan’s relationship with Frank O’Hara because here is this gay poet and they talked every day. He was instrumental to her career. She was immersed in this world of queens, so immersed in that in her first show, she called herself George Hartigan as a camp gesture with her gay friends who all had their own camp name. So I become fascinated about their relationship in a way of thinking about Gladys’ relationship with Keith Martin that I will never know. Also thinking about Grace Hartigan as maybe she was, not her art but her life, was Gladys that I thought she was an actual Bohemian who rejected middle-class norms, moved to the village, and actually one of the things that Gladys said, which was that she abandoned her child and she’s like, “Well, I could have done that,” Gladys says. But Grace Hartigan did, she did abandon her child in order to pursue an artist life. But I started thinking, “Well, what would it have been like if Gladys had moved to New York with my father as a child? Would that might have been much better?” I see what you mean about this speculative aspect because Gladys was one of the first people hired at the Maryland Institute College of Art which was a very conservative institution in the moment when they decided that abstraction could be allowed into the curriculum. She was hired to teach abstraction in 1960. Now, there’s only one famous person, abstract artist, or I should say one person who towers over all the others and that’s Grace Hartigan who’s always mentioned and I was like, “Well, that’s strange.” So she was hired the year Gladys left. [laughter] did she leave because Grace Hartigan was hired? Potentially. But so I start to think, “Well, what would it have been like for them to have been friends?” At that school, they had opposite teaching styles. Gladys wanted everyone to embrace their difference and did not want them to imitate her I guess to bring out the complications in this nourishing way. Now, Grace was one of these scathing critics who just [inaudible] I was like, “Well, what would happen if they interacted in the hallways?” I thought that Grace was more liberated than Gladys but Grace, when she decided that she had found the man of her dreams who became her fourth husband, she abandoned her gay friends and left New York, wrote them letters, and said, “I’m leaving you. I found my man,” because she thought she had found the person who would support her. Now Gladys already had that in a much lower, wasn’t as lavish as Grace was looking for but she also, like her gay friend and his lover was a part of that interest. I was like, “Well, what could they have learned from one another?” Grace said, her artist statement says, “I embrace everything that is vulgar and vital in American life.” See that word vulgar. That was a positive thing. [laughter] So I just found that fascinating. I’m glad you found that fascinating. I do think that is a speculative aspect and I think that history is always speculative because we can have documentation, we can know as much as we can know but we can’t feel it, the feeling is speculative. I remember the quote from Mark Bradford that I remember now actually was he said that he felt unsure about abstraction at a time when Pollock and Emmett Till were both on the cover of magazines. Emmett Till who was lynched and his mother Mamie Till had an open-casket funeral to politicize it and this is at the same time as abstract art is on the verge of being canonized. That contradiction and that impossibility. Another aspect of the speculative aspect that you’re talking about, like Billie Holiday, she was a victim of the drug war before it was the drug war. She was hounded to her death by the Feds. She could have flourished but because she was a Black woman who refused the confines of a segregated world, because she refused the boundaries of sexuality and gender, and because she did because of Strange Fruit in particular like you pointed out, a song written by Abel Meeropol, a communist Jew and this became her signature song. I wonder, “Did Gladys ever go to Cafe Society?” Because she was in New York studying art at that time when Billie Holiday was performing it. I can never know but I can imagine or I can wonder. I think in the end of the book, I’m in that place of imagining and wondering, even the bad things that I know did not happen and could not happen but what if? What if Emmett Till was still alive today? That seems impossible but he would still be alive today potentially if he had not been lynched as a child. What if Billie Holiday, when she is in her hospital bed, people say she died of addiction, she did not die of addiction, [laughs] I mean she died, her addiction was a product of being hounded to her death. How could she not be an addict? What has she got out of that bed? These are questions I did not have at the beginning of the book and they’re made possible through the process of writing it.
DN: Well, I love Touching the Art, and as a way to come to an end, I want to read a couple of things that you said to Lara Mimosa Montes for the Believer, not about Touching the Art but that feels connected to this dream of what we could be. There you say about your book The Freezer Door, but I think again it extends into this book too, “I’m searching for touch in everyday experience, touch as a way of conjuring safety, of inhabiting a body without pain. Desire as a way of inhabiting the world in the fullest sense, beyond borders or walls or the deadening impact of social norms. I think that desire changes the language, it breaks the form, it creates the elliptical structure, the search for language to convey what language cannot convey. The way the text flips around to touch itself. The reversal of memory as a technique for opening up feeling. The rhythm of words, the flow creating its own intimacy, in and out of the spaces and places that create their own forms, our bodies in these rooms, making room.” Then later, “One thing I realized while writing The Freezer Door is that the process of writing can be a form of embodiment. The way shaping the text changes the way you breathe or dream or imagine possibilities in the gaps where language stops. That’s what I’m after. Language as a way to create more possibilities for feeling. For feeling everything.” In that spirit, I was hoping we could go out with a final brief reading, a memory from early in the book of you and Gladys together collaborating.
MBS: Absolutely, and I love you bringing back that interview. As I was listening to you, I’m like, “Wait, I said that.” [laughter] It’s totally true about this book too, you’re right, the reversal of memory as a technique of opening up feeling and that searching for touch and everyday experience and literally touching the art as a modality in a sense. I was right, which is predictive. [laughs]
DN: It really was.
[Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore reads from Touching the Art]
DN: Thank you, Mattilda.
MBS: Thank you so much. This has been an incredible conversation. I love how we went in so many different directions and I appreciate this so much.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore about our latest book, Touching the Art. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about Mattilda’s work at mattildabernsteinsycamore.com. For the bonus audio archive, Mattilda contributes a reading of the first chapter of her forthcoming book Terry Dactyl. This joins many readings, craft talks, conversations with translators, and more from everyone from Johanna Hedva to Bhanu Kapil, Christina Sharpe, to Dionne Brand, and every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation, of things I discovered while preparing for the conversation, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards including the bonus audio archive, the Tin House Early Readership Subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, a bundle of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s books signed by her, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.