“Be the person you needed when you were younger.”
When I was 13, circuitous circumstances led me to seek a bathroom in The National Gallery of Art. Following the guard’s directions, I rushed through the modern wing, when without thinking, I pivoted in front of an oil on canvas. The painting was a monochrome sea of black. I knew nothing about art, had no idea what or who made art, had never known art was even a thing, but in that moment, I couldn’t move. I stood in front of Ad Reinhardt “Abstract Painting, №34” for a full 10 minutes, transfixed, lost in the subtle gradations of shadows, tears dripping into the creases of my mouth, unexpectedly warm and salty. And I had no idea why.
I come from a radically conservative family, and art is not something that’s ever been talked about, let alone explored or celebrated. In fact, where I come from, we are so culturally and socially conservative, even religious iconography is shunned. This was the first time I had ever visited a museum, and it was my first time to see art displayed, let alone showcased in a space where it is named and revered. But there I was that summer (after I’d had my spleen removed, newly healthy, sleeping in group tents, travelling by caravan across the country for eight weeks, performing and proselytizing nightly in an ecclesiastical play), seeking to use a bathroom in a big city. There are stories buried deep in the shells of that long, dense summer, packed with conflicting emotions. But it was Abstract Painting №34 that showed me the way home.
I knew enough not to talk about what I saw with the faith-based community with whom I travelled. But I held it within me, the rest of the summer, the smell and taste of black, and I began to notice the gradations of hues in the night skies throughout the regions we travelled, through the thick air of the southern nights and the cool northern evenings that welcomed us as we made our way into Canada. I began to notice the intricacies of blue in the daylight and the browns of the earth we slept on. And all these years later, when I ask myself what that painting did to me, why it propelled me to spend the last three decades at the intersection of my personal and professional life extricating myself from my familial roots, I understand how “art” can be used as a compass.
For the sixteenth time, I am teaching a college course in which students curate, edit and publish a literary journal within the context of a creative collective. We talk about what role art serves in our communities, what it means to support artists, how art is made, distributed, seen. And I offer the students a warning from Toni Morrison in No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear: “Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists. This is the first step of a despot…who know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish.”
What I know now that I didn’t know then, is that as I stood in front of that painting in Washington DC, I was seduced into feeling, not thinking. Curiosity drew me to a canvas vastly different than the classical depictions of realism I passed on my way through the galleries toward the bathroom, but curiosity was only the trigger. I had no idea why someone would paint a canvas black, nor why anyone else would hang it up in a space, heralding it as art, but in that moment, I didn’t even know to ask those questions. In front of that painting, I accepted the invitation to feel.
Art changes us as individuals, and in doing so, changes the outer world we create and share. Inside the intricate dance between artist and viewer, we are invited to feel what we know, and by tasting, hearing, thinking, and seeing in altered ways, we increase our feeling and knowing. It’s not an obvious tool, like a map that clearly shows us where we want to go, but it transports us, nevertheless.
I think about how Abstract №34 captured my imagination. Amidst a caravan of followers seeped thick in the belief of original sin, through the darkness of a near-death illness, to a surgery that shifted my life expectancy, to the realization that black absorbs all the colors of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them to the eyes, I let that painting move me. In the weeks after my imagination took hold, I began to creatively compare black to the rigid rules and paradigms of sin and righteousness I had been taught. And I began to envision a way out of my closed compartment, into the hope of a less defined space.
Ultimately, art helps us resist oppression, whether internally or externally enforced. Through art, we ask questions too abstract to be quantified within the binary values of capitalism. Reinhardt’s passion and courage inspired me to question my status quo. In the work I now do for a living, I strive to live up to his challenge and become the person I needed when I was young.