By Tom Lutz
This remarkable series of paintings is not only a feast of color, but a poignant essay on the passage of time, on memory and mortality, one that provides a robust defense, along the way, of figurative painting. Before seeing this complex sequence, I could not have imagined that painting could so eloquently speak to the nature, function, beauty, terror, ephemerality, and persistence of memory. “Nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,” wrote Wordsworth in an ode to remembering his own childhood. “But we will grieve not,” he declares; instead, we should “find strength in what remains behind.” In these paintings, based on her family photographs, Dorothy Braudy does not indulge in such nostalgic splendor and glory and she doesn’t offer any such optimistic bucking up. This autobiography without words is a painted memoir without sentimentality, a tough, poetically nuanced reading of her shoeboxes full of photos, a narrative series that seeks recompense through neither schmaltz nor blame. The matter-of-factness of the twentieth-century snapshot- the swift, unprofessional, marginally aesthetic, and idiosyncratic capture of parents, siblings, children, and pets- is rendered here in all its mundane banality, with no compensatory romantic glow. And yet the cumulative effect of the project is to make us feel the full heft of the familial, to make us feel as if we have traced the very curve of the mortal coil.
I watched a series of paintings being made. Every couple of months I would go to Braudy’s studio and check in on its progress. Throughout the making of these paintings, stacks and stacks of photographs were piled about, all candidates for the series, and Braudy would talk through which were potentially richest, which she felt needed to be part of this series. Her method was intuitive, pictures emerging from the boxes as necessary without much of a pre-imposed scheme. Many of the paintings were in process at any given time- outlines on canvas, bits of background splashed on, a single figure colored- and each time I came back, they would have further crystallized, like memory itself, moving from the vaguest sketches to their current, color-saturated fullness. In an art world divided into representational-narrative and abstract-conceptual art, these paintings are fiercely representational and obviously narrative, and yet watching the process of Braudy’s memory become manifest made me feel like I was in the most conceptual of realms. The first questions raised by the series are obvious: What is the relation of photography to painting? What is it, they ask, that makes a person, a memory, a consciousness, a life, a family, a history?
“Our memory is like a shop in the window of which is exposed now one, now another photograph of the same person,” Proust wrote in Remembrance of Things Past, a work that he composed in part through reference to his own collection of photographs. He discusses the relationship between memory and our own changing perspective, as in the case of seeing his grandmother one day in an entirely new environment. That day, instead of seeing her pulled into the vortex of his own pre-existing image of her, he suddenly recognized her as a “common,” sick, dejected old woman. Proust was famously aware both of the vagaries of memory- “Memory is like a dispensary or chemical laboratory in which chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison” -and memory’s constant movement- “The moments of the past do not remain still; they retain in our memory the motion which drew them towards the future, towards a future which has itself become the past, and draw us on in their train.” Like Proust’s exercise in familial memory, Braudy’s suggests both the persistence of memory and its mutability, the other our power over it, our ability, indeed our imperative, to reinterpret, to recolor the past.
Braudy would narrate as I looked at the paintings, and each time her stories became more detailed, more intimate. The first painting, for instance, is of Braudy’s father and his siblings, standing on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River in 1904. Why is this first painting so heartbreaking? The artist’s father is flanked by his sister and brother, all in their rumpled Edwardian clothes, awkward not just with youth but with the very process of the snapshot, so new to family life at the turn of the century. The Kodak Brownie camera had just been introduced four years earlier, and its newness, I though, was perhaps the reason that the photographer was non too good at framing, so that the artist’s uncle is cropped on the side and top, one leg almost entirely missing. On first viewing I thought Braudy purposely doesn’t correct this in the painting, but instead allows it to accrete meaning, to force a series of questions: Is the brother not so important in the story that unfolds? Was it clumsiness that pushed him off into the margins, or the photographer’s inattention? Does the photographer, in fact not like this kid? It is one of the remarkable aspects of this series than one of the photographs themselves do, these paintings make viewer aware of a photographer snapping the picture. It turns out that the photo on which this painting is based is cropped differently than the painting- that it is the painter’s decision to make the cropping an issue, that Braudy has in fact made us think of the photographer.
But the other pictures will do the same, regularly altering us to the difference between the snapshot and the painted portrait. The subject of the snapshot poses for the photographer and is captured posing, looking directly at the photographer, whose presence is so deeply enmeshed with the conventions of the snapshot and our own habits of posing that we don’t often notice; Braudy’s series brings back the ghost in this machine, the figures looking not at us, as we expect in painting, but at the photographer, who sometimes even intrudes as an actual shadow. Centuries ago, painters learned how to erase themselves from this process and have their subjects seem to gaze directly at the viewer of the painting, learned to paint not the poser posing but the person being. Very skilled photographers can do the same, but in the average snapshot the figures look at the photographer- the person behind the camera is there in the subject’s eyes and gestures, unmistakably there for us, even when, as in most of the cases here, we don’t know who that photographer was.
In this first painting Braudy’s uncle is in every way less defined than her father, not just in his missing parts but in the detail of his face, in the texture of his clothing. He has a slight smirk, as if he, the oldest, was less confused by this moment in which time, their time, was being captured and frozen; his disdain for the photographer seems to match the photographer’s for him. Meanwhile, her father and her aunt, their heads cocked, look at and beyond the photographer; the two of them peer out of the painting, squinting as if straining to see into the future that will be represented in the paintings that follow. They seem even to be anticipating the blows fate has in store for them, seem to be wincing at the future which will eventually become this painter’s past, this daughter and niece’s family history. They hold one another’s hands in a way both intentional and haphazard, one of the many moments in which Braudy captures the body’s language, apprehends the way a body can express more than its owner could ever articulate about him or herself. The children hold each other, it seems, for strength and out of habit, with that combination of willingness and unwillingness that is central to kinship as we know it.
On the other side of the country a few years later, Braudy’s mother was born on a family farm south of Los Angeles, and in this first of the California paintings we see her as a young woman with her sister and mother. Like the Southern Pacific travel ads in the 1920s, many of the California paintings in this series are alive with color, gaudy with the Western sun. In one of the many tricks of memory this series explores , her mother and her mother’s twin sister, flanking their own mother, seem already old, certainly older than the teens they were. The three figures stand out from the background, the painting imitating the mind’s attention, mimicking the way memory’s focus sharpens with the force of personality. And that force is clearly not entirely benign- the bright red, pink, and orange tones are not just vibrant but slightly menacing, as if these women radiate a slight hostility, belying the otherwise bucolic conventions of the scene- the barn, windmill, and improbably flowering lawn and trees. This and other paintings demonstrate the importance “the farm” had for both families, the place of fecund origin, the relic image of some hazy golden age. But here the colors burn away the pastoral, leaving us with an anxious sense of unsettled emotions.
In contrast, in the next picture of her adolescent father, the colors remain naturalistic. Is her father less troubled than her mother at this point in their lives before they have met? Or is the artist more troubled by these images of her mother? Perhaps, her father, as we will see again in every picture to come, is not entirely comfortable either, even though he is producing for the camera a reasonable imitation of someone who is comfortable. In the picture, based on a photograph taken at a family picnic in Kentucky, even the dog, his head alert and slightly worried despite the girl’s calming hand, seems like it would prefer this moment to be over. Behind her father and his brother and sister, a row of headless aunts stand. This cropping, we might assume, is again the slip of an amateur photographer’s hand, which we give retrospective meaning, but again, the recropping is the artist’s decision. These are the representative of the faceless, larger familial background, the haunting of extended relations that rarely attract memory’s direct gaze. Still, one can imagine, even for the headless aunts, a story, a trajectory, a moment, a future, a past.
By the time of a later painting, Braudy’s father has finished law school, left Kentucky, and come home to California with a fancy job, where he meets her mother. In this diptych they are at Arrowhead Lake, in the mountains east of L.A., her mother and her aunt and their two beaus. It is an interesting choice to make this the only diptych in the series, in part because it is in some ways the least personal of all the snapshots- generic in the pose of the two couples in their bathing suits, generic in its moment of early relationships, before the storms hit. The man walking away with his back to the camera and painter and viewer cares nothing for the posers, as if he’s seen it all before in this tourist town, and will see all again. The scene itself stretches past them onto the next canvas, existing, in the smaller of the two paintings, without any help from them or anyone else, as if their existence will leave no real trace.
Her father, however, even if he has come into her world, has somehow brought her mother into his palette, taken her from the glaring, lurid sun of the west to the nature- hues of the east. In the next painting, the artist makes her first, somewhat diffuse appearance, standing with her father. Her father is young and handsome here. It would still be a few years before he would experience a downhill slide, failing to make a decent living, eating up what was left of his patrimony. At this point, of course, he knows nothing of such troubles to come, and his daughter knows nothing at all, her closed eyes an image of her 14th-month-old inability to see the world. The detail is correspondingly muted, the buildings, the ground, the flowers all more blocks of color than dimensional, articulated objects. Even the central figures lack detail, as if the available memories simply cannot fill them in, her father’s shoes and smile the most recognizable objects, giving us a toddler’s-eye view of the world, the toddler that is virtually faceless to itself.
The painting that follows, of the artist’s grandmother, is one of several highly colored, shockingly bright, almost monochromatic portraits. Her grandmother has moved in from the farm to Denker Avenue in Los Angeles, and in this image she is proud of her flowers, clearly, proud of the skills she has brought from the country to the city. The undifferentiated foliage, except for the few large dahlias, suggests again the way sensation lives in memory, the way our memories are punctuated by attention, the unattended- to not so much erased as jumbled, its qualities if not its detail intact. The artist appears again, as a tiny image far in the background, as if too young to have memories of her own beyond the hearty if somewhat alarming glow of her grandmother’s presence. The colors register emotion the way the bodies’ tensions do, suggesting emotional states in the subjects, and the less naturalistic, the more we can safely assume that the colors also register the painter’s emotional reaction to the photo. The non-naturalistic colors remind us that the artist is doing memory work, producing, from black and white photos, through her reflective reimagining, the correlative pigment and the correlative emotional reaction in the viewer.
A year or so later, the family has moved again, to Redondo Boulevard, to the house that would be the peak of their California life. The buildings, although still largely blocks of color, are more detailed, more particular, especially those objects of particular concern to a very young girl. The steps, as they do for children, acquire more relative focus than they might for an adult, for instance. The toy car is lovingly rendered, of course, the girl’s pride of ownership apparent. The toddler has become a girl and is aware of the ribbon in her hair, aware of the camera. She looks back, in a gesture that includes a downward gaze toward her own shadow, as if already wondering what such self-consciousness means, as if beset by a slight sense that something is being left behind.
In Camera Lucinda, Roland Bathes describes his intense examination of snapshots of his mother after her death. One photo in particular provides him with his hermeneutic epiphany.
My mother was five at the time (1898), her brother was seven. He was leaning against the bridge railing….She, shorter, was standing a little back, facing the camera….She was holding one finger in the other hand as children often do, in and awkward gesture. the brother and sister had been posed, side by side, alone, under the palms of the Winter Garden….I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother.
This satisfying conclusion, we have to think, an appropriate journey’s end. Braudy’s interpretations of her family photographs, however, do not achieve such a neat conclusion, even if, in many ways her project is similar to that of Barthes, a project of rediscovery. Barthes also suggests a number of times that all snapshots ultimately refer to Death, and certainly in this series many of the people represented are dead, now, at the time of our viewing, and one is asked to consider the passing of life. But rather than the “madness” Barthes sees as the result of such a realization, these paintings offer, for all their individual emotionality, a more meditative and, in Wordsworth’s sense, “philosophic,” unmournful conclusion. And where Barthes finds ” the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency” in photographs, since they mechanically repeat something that can “never be repeated existentially,” Braudy insists on not only the Particular, but also the General. One gets the sense that this could be anyone’s family, that somehow this could even be our family, that there is nothing so singular in our experience. Perhaps if this were an exhibition of the snapshots themselves we would view them as Barthes suggests. But the paintings take us out of individuality into myth, into the habitus, into the world we share.
A later painting for instance, is in some way entirely specific- I don’t remember, as a child, ever encountering a man feeding ducks- but in some ways absolutely and powerfully generic. This marvelous painting is very animated, and again, her sister’s body is so eloquent, its minutely retracted shoulders and slightly cupped hand suggesting a desire to flee while her belly protrudes toward the experience in front of her, a tiny body in a cold war with itself. The new house on Gardner Street was close to the Fairfax farmer’s market, when it was truly a farmer’s market, and this truly creepy farmer (at least, perhaps in the memory of the artist, barely seen to her sister’s right), leers at the girl in a disturbing way as she focuses not on him but on his ducks. This is an archetypal scene, something we all recognize from the landscape of dream and nightmare, and this typically may be as important as the specific facts of the artist’s experience. Innocence and danger, the curiosity of the young: we do not need a specific story to see these paintings, and yet, for those of us who love narrative, the specific story keeps drawing us back. In fact, this is roughly the time when her father’s slide from success has begun, an the next we see him he will have some of the gloom and darkness of this duck farmer- the particular is the general in this picture.
In another painting, Braudy, her aunt, and grandmother sit in a swing. Grandma is a little grumpy, a little slouchy, while Braudy, on the far side of the swing, leans into the camera, and with the newspaper open on her lap, she is clearly leaning into the world just as her grandmother leans away from it. She is uncountable days older than the last image, beginning the long march away from her by AP and UPI. A lace hangs off her sneaker as a slight indication of the trip-ups on the way, but the smiling expectancy, the clenched fist holding on to the swing are affecting in their innocence. In this painting, again, as in many of Braudy’s paintings, the familial relations are quietly condensed into the way these figures hold their bodies, as they are even more so in an earlier one. The young Braudy and her mother stand at the pingpong table with her mother’s troubled (“wiped-out,” Braudy describes her here) twin. Sickly, smoking, a rebel with bright red fingernail polish and Bohemian slacks, Braudy’s aunt would always have an air of dissipation and would die decades before her twin, Braudy’s mother. The latter, on the other hand, is indomitable, hand on her hip, standing tall with only the slightest hunch acknowledging the pressures she feels. Her sister, despite the defiant cigarette and nails, slouches in slumping defeat.
Braudy’s young face, more than in any of the paintings, mirrors her mother’s, as if this is the age when the identification begins, that mother-daughter dance that afflicts and compels almost every daughter I have ever known. Her arms, too, somewhat lazily mirror her mother’s, left straight like her mother’s right, right crooked like her mother’s left, but without the tension, without the knowing why, the muscles themselves seem to say, she would want to strike a pose. Or perhaps she is trying to imitate her aunt’s looseness and failing, caught between the antithetical pull of these two role models. In any case her face has real tension, suggesting that, however unable she might have been to articulate it, she realizes that her own long fall from innocence is underway.
In the scene on her grandmother’s porch, some of the tension has left her face. With her toddler cousin on lap, her younger sister next to her, all in the same chair, she has the sense of assurance of the eldest child. The older generation hovers already like ghosts- the shadow of her mother the photographer, the shadle-like sketch of her grandmother inside the door- these, with the heavy shadows and deep blue background, the uncomfortable squirming cousin, the unsure sister all combine to create a melancholy, threatening context for this moment of being in charge on the chair, of looking confidently into the camera. This and the painting that precedes it are the last pre-adolescent images of the painter. In the latter, on the beach, she clenches her hands in front of the bottom of her swimsuit, absentmindedly or already habitually demure, the opposite of her younger and thus less self-conscious sister. The sky in this painting has a science fiction look, an almost irradiated glow, mirrored in the molten sand. Even the shadows glow as if with some impending movement toward an unknown future, the present burning its way into the past. The happy colors of the beach umbrellas and furniture are part of the experience as well, of course, as are the playful images of the swimsuits and the tousled blond hair. But the orange and fuchsia sky, the green tinge in Braudy’s face, and her sister’s pose- with her face turned almost as if expecting a blow- all suggest a worrying, at best, future.
As if in explanation for this sense of dread comes this portrait of the artist’s father, now deep in depression, with his prospects dwindling into nothing. His irretrievable pastness is signaled by the sepia colors of the figure, the lack of light in this painting comment enough on his mood if his pained face was not. The house behind him has some odd angles, as if teetering under the weight of his displeasure and disappointment. With bleeding ulcers, hungover, his hands behind his back, his business ventures failed, he is about to take his family in defeat, back from California to Kentucky. His own father had died, and he had no means and no reason to stay west. He stands in front of the house he is about to leave, a portrait of depression, with only the purple wave in his hair signaling his former confidence. F. Scott Fitzgerald knew about this sense of diminishment: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” he wrote in the late 1930s, “but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work- the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside- the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once.” This look of defeat had been growing for the artist’s father for some years. “There is another sort of blow that comes from within,” Fitzgerald went on, “that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.” In this portrait the artist’s father stands in some no-man’s-land between Fitzgerald’s outer and inner blows.
Moving always marks the memory of a child, and this next painting, unlike any that have come before, takes a wide angle on its scene. Before this all the world was childishly close, the larger scene unknown, taken for granted, or unnoticed. But Maysville, Kentucky, was a new world, a newly wide world, and everything seems bright once more. Again unlike any of the earlier pictures, this one seems uninflected in its palate, as if in this new world, the young painter could see clearly, and could imbibe a scene not yet marked with familial or personal emotion. Her father, his tie flapping, strides confidently, back home, feeling cosmopolitan in this small-town America, less claustrophobic. The generic Main Street buildings and figures and American flags provide the comfortable and unproblematic background for this new act in his and his family’s life. The scene has more detail than the earlier pictures even as it takes on a larger view: the world is newly open and visible to this man and, more importantly, to his impressionable daughter, flooded with new information and sights.
In Maysville her father was a personage, someone people knew. He had an interest in the family farm, and loved to play the gentleman farmer, coming out into the field at harvest in his tie and linen slacks to have a photo of himself taken helping the hired hands. The family farm was just a remnant of the ancestral lands, but still an important part of his income and an important part of the family’s identity. His pose here is not a true pitching in- not in those clothes- but quite literally a photo-op. In town, for the painter,
now an adolescent girl, the world was new in all ways. Here she stands in a perfect teen mix of poise and awkwardness, the knobby knee and slightly tense shoulders, displaying her boyfriend’s watch on her right wrist. Spring is everywhere, even in her hair and the new-leaf color of her dress. The house behind her has some detail, as if it interests her, but her own house and the plants around her have become sketchy, unimportant. From wide scene and unfocused attention of the image of Maysville, we have already returned to some more personal scale , as the young Braudy has assimilated this new place and returned to self-consciousness. The carefully arranged hair and carefully folded socks, the attention to detail, has become personal, and the world has begun to shrink again in a new way.
The next two pictures are of the artist with her sister, and both are skating pictures. They had a standard sisterly relationship: “I tried to ditch her all the time. She was always hanging around,” Braudy says. “She was a pest. Four years younger than me, she fell in love with all my boyfriends,” she mock-complains, remembering her irritation by almost feeling it again. “It was comic. She would never leave the room.” In front of their house on roller skates, the sisters are bathed in an ominous pink glow reminiscent of their last California beach day. Her younger sister is ready to go, wearing her silly hat, but the painter, pensive, hangs her head and arm, a portrait of classic unhappy, teenage self-absorption. Part of the reason for this portentous despair is the disappointment she felt in her new house. She was expecting Tara from her father’s glowing descriptions of the old plantation, and found instead a small Victorian on Second Street.
The ice-skating scene is where her glasses first appear. “I was cheerful and strong until the seventh grade,” she remembers, “then the big school, glasses. Ugh.” This picture suggests not so much that sense of awkwardness as her growing ability to see herself a little from the outside not just in a self-conscious way, although that is here, too, but also in what we could say is a less heavily colored way, as if accepting with some philosophic distance the horrible fate of being a teenager with glasses. A third painting with her sister has the artist sitting in the bottom of a canoe with a young neighbor girl, the girl’s mother paddling in the back. Again the color does an enormous amount of work; in the naturalistic colors this would be a typically bucolic summer scene, but here the childlike use of reds and and purples and the orange sky layer the scene with complex emotions. The landscape behind the figures has the kind of book, overlaid by something more sinister: trepidation or some more fiery sort of anticipation. The landscape seems nourished by the most acid of rains, while the figures sit mostly unaware of the apparently toxic environment in which they float. Only the artist’s protective gesture toward her charge and her sister’s stiff readiness suggest that they, too, feel something amiss.
Her parents, meanwhile, had made a new life for themselves, with a circle friends with whom they had what they thought of as sophisticated cocktail parties. The TV, cigarettes, and dress styles mark this as the early 1950s. Her mother and father flank the group. Their friend, the life of the party, is in the middle posing for her husband who snaps the picture, while the artist’s mother both supports the woman and leans away, her smile far from convincing. The third woman at the same time, her mother displaying a certain amount of alarm. The angle of her head and shape of her mouth mirror those of her husband’s, making his expression seem slightly forced as well, causing his squinting eyes to seem more dissembling than merry. All three women sport shoes with identical straps, and combined with the dresses they suggest the rigid fashion dictates of the 1950s suburb. Only the central figure, though, seems capable of planting those strappy shoes on a neighbor’s thigh, which the other husband can’t help staring at, an Updike-Cheever-Yates-like adulterous suburban tension lurking behind the scene of relaxed camaraderie.
The most revealing portrait of her father in the series, for me, shows him posing in the kitchen with the family’s longtime maid, Edna. He has what Braudy calls “his everpresent drink” in his hand. After the half-dozen portraits of the man, my sense of the man somehow reaches fruition here, and yet I find it difficult to say why. In part it is his at least momentary comfort, whatever lingering distress and anxiety he exhibits: the lord of the Southern manor is one role he is ready for. But in part it is his slightly startled look, as if he would just as soon not be a photographed, the slight slope of his shoulder and hand behind his back gestural clues to his continuing feeling of failure. This wish that the camera was not there makes one think back to all of the pictures so far, and in how many of them the subjects shy from the lens, feel the camera the way one feels about social pressure, as an implicit indictment, although it is never clear for what crimes. In the portrait of Edna, too, the artist has managed to convey a heartbreaking overdetermination of emotional cues: the left eye’s sadness and the right’s apprehension, the smile’s incomplete articulation, the head upright over the body’s slight slouch. They have been in this relationship a long time, and there is no urgency, no rush to grab dinner from the oven, plenty of supplies in the open cupboards, and yet the photographer’s demand that they take momentary stock is not something for which they are eager. The curtains, oddly busy and gaudy in this otherwise muted scene of muted emotion are dated, one of the many small gestures the artist makes toward her distance from the scene. They seem to exist in some other family’s representation of domesticity, a tiny touch of the unheimlich in what is in some ways the most intimate of all the paintings, the one in which we see deepest into the house, into everyday life of this family.
Meanwhile home life for the artist was playing second to life beyond, to schooldays and school chums. Here at sixteen or so, the boy’s boyness allows her to be just a girl, even if the clarinet’s phallic resonance can’t be ignored. The buildings behind them have an add Escher-like quality despite at first glance being nondescript every-buildings. The girl is typically, achetypically adolescent in the tension that remains despite every effort to appear relaxed- this is Braudy’s genius, it seems to me, like the great mid-century psychologist Silvan Tomkins she is completely tuned in to the muscular signs of emotion and their conscious and unconscious wellsprings. The boy has it too, a slight hunch to the neck. The boy’s crumpled papers- what are they? We can have no idea, and the artist herself doesn’t remember, but they affect us, however obscurely, signs of his own semi-conscious anxieties and obsessions, a sign of some physical expression of emotion that has already come and gone before the photographer snapped the scene. They also seem to function as a sign of the artist’s teen self’s inability to see what this friend was really all about behind his placid exterior. He was just a friend, after all.
Braudy always says, when looking at the portrait of her and a girlfriend in their first black dresses: “We thought we were so sophisticated.” In a way they were, certainly more sophisticated than we have seen so far. The American Gothic clapboards behind them help belie that sophistication, as do the bits of Victorian frimfram decorating the dresses themselves. the painting’s force comes in part because of the oddly demonic looks on their faces, both of them with the suggestion of plots and schemes untold, sly conspirators. Again the tension remains in these bodies supposedly at rest. But for the first time we suspect depths that the image does not help us plumb; the image lets us know that now we are dealing with someone who understands something about images and self-containment, something about remaining unreadable- this is, in fact, a real measure of sophistication.
Only a couple of years later, she was, we would have to admit, more sophisticated. Here, we see her at the age of nineteen kissing her first husband in a classic movie-star pose, the dominating yellow of cowardice undermining her nonchalance, the picket fence of domestic bliss already betrayed by the gathering blackness and disappearing vegetation behind. It takes a moment for this couple’s convincing and conventional enactment of domestic bliss to be overwhelmed by its own background, but eventually even the red hose snaking across the ground behind them becomes slightly sinister. In the
second painting from this marriage, again we have what seems to be a benign moment of familial bliss, the standard brick-faced home. And the muted blue tones do suggest a kind of peace, as does the artist’s sweeping gesture of oneness with her role, a touching reminder of how simple life can be when we act in the ways we are expected to act. But the blues also signal, of course, the blues, and surely the artist recognizes in this 1950s feminine mystique. The washed-out colors keep the emotions from full expression, but attending to this painting for any length of time one begins to notice that the smiles of children are themselves slightly strained: her son, the birthday boy, has his hands raised, almost as if in self-protection, even as he bravely smiles for the photographer; his small friend gazes as much inward as at the scene, a slight grimace on his face. Despite whatever is right here, something is wrong, and it is not being said.
By the time of the third painting of this marriage, the artist is on her way out. Sitting in a boat with a friend, she gazes back at her husband with a slight contempt- he is out to sea and doesn’t know it. The colors have changed from the dishwater, depressed blues of the last painting to the hot pinks of repressed rage. Or is it a realization that she is very much in the pink, still in her early twenties, and too young to accept the middle-aged life she fell into so quickly? In either case, in the last picture from this marriage, the suburban scene she is about to leave takes on some dimension, as if in taking stock in the midst of great change, we necessarily are pushed to see something larger in the family: we see more buildings, more cars, more of the world. The boys blithely lead, as the bickering couple stands awkwardly behind, on their last legs, a significant gap between their rigid bodies.
“Why, for all of us out all that we have heard, seen, felt, in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others?” T.S. Eliot asked in 1933. “Such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer.” For Eliot, and I believe for Braudy, the symbolic weight of these pictures- the fact that this couple standing in disolution and disgust strikes some elemental recognition in all of us, that we recognize this couple as caught in a basic human dilemma- is something we see and yet cannot, finally, fully fathom. “We might just as well ask why,” Eliot continues, “when we try to recall visually some period in the past, we find in our memories just the few meager arbitrarily chosen set of snapshots that we do find there, the faded poor souvenirs of passionate moments.”
In the first painting from the painter’s second marriage, we note a fundamental cultural change. Instead of the conventional suburban scene and the prim legs-together stance of the last painting, we see the artist here relaxed, lounging with her legs splayed comfortably in woman’s-lib pants, the full range of primary and secondary colors in the quasi-bohemian drapes and decor, her new husband’s quietly counter-cultural lock of hair falling across his forehead. And yet, still- how quickly things change, especially in the 1960s- by the next painting, what looks like his sauve self-possession already appears to be immature pretensions, as he poses with his psychiatrist’s pipe in his hand, his three angry daughters as unhappy as his wife. A fourth daughter is taking the picture, and one can’t help but think that recording this level of collective discomfort is a bit of a hostile act itself. Half overgrown boy, half premature paterfamilias, this man is on one side of a large divide from the women in his life, while the artist, growing her hair out in tune with the changing times, looks at his children as if wondering how she ended up in this mess, not exactly on their side either, and thus alone. The bright colors of the girls’ jackets and hers are reminiscent of the troubling paintings we have already seen, and the suggestions of flowering nature in the backdrop seems an ironic comment on the everyday dysfunctions of the figures.
All’s well that ends well? In the last, oversized painting, the artist has met both the new world of the seventies and the mate with whom she would spend these next thirty and more years. We end, then with a kind of convoluted marriage plot, a multi-marriage plot, perhaps, but a romantic end nonetheless. After a life of uneasy quasi-victories and quasi-defeats, is this where we are meant to end up, a complex story that ends with girl-gets-boy? That would be simplistic, of course, and Braudy is careful, it seems to me, to avoid such a conventional conclusion. Like the great novelists, she does not suggest that we are in a fairy-tale land free of frailty and morality. Despite the sunglasses, there is not too much sun in this painting, as if the future were not all that bright. The smiles of this new couple are themselves not without some trepidation and sadness. The figure between them is, after all, a figure between them, and his expression of serious cool serves to suggest a disinclination to find in this new passion the answer to all of life’s woes. If nothing else, the purple flowered hippie shirt on her new husband is a sign that this, too must all change. This moment, too, will pass.
One looks forward to the next thirty-three paintings.
This series ends prematurely for an autobiography, ends halfway through a life, and yet it is complete in another way, complete, we might even say, in its very incompleteness. The paintings attest to memory’s mutability and its immutability, its materiality and immateriality, to its decipherability and its indecipherability. And in their many indeterminancies, they represent the endlessness of one’s relation to one’s own past. In talking about the work that went into the project, Braudy speaks to the efforts it takes to seriously examine such a always partial, always momentary, visual documents of one’s own past: “When you have to look that hard, something happens,” Braudy says, and that kind of transformative, deep attention is what we feel as we view these paintings. It may be that, as Susan Sontag argued, “the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood,” but this series shows that painting might be the ideal arm for consciousness in its reflective mood. “It’s like what happens at reunions,” she says. “You immediately turn into your seventeen-year-old self- but that’s all surface.” She looks at the picture of herself, 40-some years ago, adding: “Something more inexplicable happens, too.”