My younger brother came over for a story and a snack. He brings them both, which is very brotherly of him. This time he brought us a big tin of popcorn mixed with peanut M&Ms, and he read a selection from his favorite author, David Sedaris entitled "Adult Figures Charging Toward A Concrete Toadstool." It was about a family and their reckoning with the art world. As always, I leaned back and enjoyed the treat of having someone read to me. It's not very often, as a school teacher, that this happens to me. Sure, I get bits and pieces of compositions or passages for practice read by kids who are still mastering the craft. My younger brother has been practicing for a while now.
As the story unfolded, I found myself thinking about my own family's relationship to art. The fact that my artist brother was reading me a story about art wasn't lost on me. The dances we've done over the years about drawing and painting are well documented, and now I feel a sense of relief when it comes time to cede the graphic arts portion of our sibling rivalry to him. But we grew up in the same house, and as I listened to the tale of a family and their art collection, I thought about the paintings that adorned the walls of our childhood. My parents had friends who made us art, and there were few vertical surfaces that were left needing adornment. There were the Degas ballet dancers in the hallway. Ardourel wood cuts in the my parents' bedroom. And then there were the Katz canvases. Great, huge beasts that hung on the walls of the living room, one behind the piano and the other spanned the great stretch above the stairway. They were landscapes. Great, tortured landscapes that must have had dozens of tubes of oil on each one, a style my younger brother would later refer to in his own work as "liberating paint." Each tree was a twisted hunk of dried pigments laid on not with a brush, but almost certainly a pallet knife. Or a trowel.
It was these pieces that stuck in my mind when I was first offered a chance to paint with acrylics. The idea of watering down the pigments seemed to run against the way I had experienced this craft. I wanted the flames on my painting to be every bit as thick and chunky as those of Mister Katz.
When my brother finished his story, I asked him if he remembered those paintings. He laughed and we enjoyed our shared memory. "Whatever happened to them," I wondered. Neither of us could account for them. We knew that they were no longer on display at my mother's home. The scaled-down townhouse life would not support such massive displays. We agreed that there was only one thing to do: Call mom.
As with many of these types of out-of-the-blue inquiries, it took our mother a few moments to catch on to what we were trying to figure out. Once she did, she assured us that the paintings in question were not from "that Morris Katz," even if that's how we wanted to remember them. She wanted to assure her sons that she hadn't tossed any sort of possible masterpiece or conversation piece. "Your father and I bought those with the furniture." I knew that the living room furniture from the old homestead had gone away some time ago, during the move to smaller quarters. Suddenly I recognized these as the "sofa sized paintings" that they truly were. Their value was the one that we had assigned them back when we were kids, when we were shorter than those paintings were long. We owned that art. These were not reproductions, but the work of some starving artist, who shared a name or borrowed a name of an artist who may have been more well-fed and slightly more notorious. For the purposes of our story, we'll just say that part of the collection has "been retired," but they still live in our mind's eye.