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.