Touch­ing the Art

  • Review
By – December 4, 2023

Touch­ing the Art is osten­si­bly a book about Mat­til­da Bern­stein Sycamore’s rela­tion­ship with her late grand­moth­er, Gladys Gold­stein—a notable visu­al artist who worked in Bal­ti­more dur­ing most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Sycamore and her grand­moth­er had a com­pli­cat­ed, entan­gled rela­tion­ship. Through­out this work — part mem­oir and part lyric essay — she attempts to rec­on­cile their con­flict­ing life expe­ri­ences. In doing so, how­ev­er, Sycamore finds more ques­tions than answers. Each of these ques­tions forms its own sat­is­fy­ing nar­ra­tive arc with­in the broad­er story. 

Pos­si­bly the most bril­liant choice the author made was arrang­ing this book as a kind of col­lage — a nod to the medi­um in which Gold­stein worked. Sycamore explains how her grandmother’s pieces inter­act with one anoth­er and their envi­ron­ments, both his­tor­i­cal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly. As she describes these works, Sycamore seems to be search­ing for new ways to look at the world, at Gold­stein, and at her­self. If I recre­ate my rela­tion­ship with Gladys from touch­ing her abstrac­tion,” she writes, mesh embed­ded into white paper, decay­ing lace, straw spilling off the edges, mar­bleized tears, what mean­ing do I find in a still­ness that cre­ates calm, allows for breath, soft­ens the air.” There are almost no ques­tion marks at the end of Sycamore’s sen­tences — the state of won­der­ing is constant.

Sycamore ele­gant­ly weaves togeth­er a vari­ety of sub­jects, includ­ing her com­ing of age as a queer artist, the work of gay male artists, Goldstein’s place in the artis­tic canon, how sex­u­al assault can rot the fab­ric of a fam­i­ly, and the racial and class struc­tures of Bal­ti­more. She also explores Jew­ish cul­ture and how Jews are per­ceived by Amer­i­ca at large. 

At the end of the book, Sycamore notes, I’m not try­ing to write a his­to­ry, and yet I’m caught in the sud­den over­lap of knowl­edge. What this might reveal.” Although she doesn’t resolve all of the ques­tions she has posed, she does find solace in the search­ing, invit­ing us to be active cre­ators in the col­lage of our being.

Mikhal Wein­er is an Israeli-Amer­i­can writer, jour­nal­ist, and part-time Can­tor liv­ing in New Jer­sey with her wife and two kids. She grad­u­at­ed Sum­ma cum Laude from Berklee Col­lege of Music in 2014. She has writ­ten music and book reviews, pro­files of artists, report­ed work, and per­son­al essays for pub­li­ca­tions like Par­ents, NY Jew­ish Week, Real Sim­ple, Pride Source, and more. Her Sub­stack, Wel­come to the Chaos Palace, is about explor­ing the idea that col­or­ing out­side the lines can unlock new realms of cre­ativ­i­ty and inno­va­tion. It’s also about being a mom with ADHD and Judaism and queer­ness. Her work, whether text or music, is deeply influ­enced by her expe­ri­ences grow­ing up as an Israeli gay woman in the ear­ly aughts and her love of words and music. She loves writ­ing about peo­ple, places and the ways their sto­ries intersect. 

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