How I Learned to Love Art

It was the 1960s, and Los Angeles was falling for pop art. An aspiring painter recalls his awakening

The windowless room is dark except for static sputtering on a video monitor. Beside the monitor, on one of the stackable chairs, sits Jim, a gaunt young man who stares at his knees and pounds them again and again with his fists. His assault is as unrelenting as the static. That must be the point, I think, but my conviction quickly fades. I shift in my seat and look around to see if anybody appears to understand what’s happening. Postures of contemplation emerge from the gloom: chins propped on hands, jaws grinding gum. Several students lean forward, mesmerized by the granulated light and the steady thwacks of impact.

The year is 1973, and our instructor, the conceptual artist John Baldessari, stands in a corner. Six foot seven, with shaggy white hair and beard, he wears an expression that is, as always, inscrutable, his hands buried in the pockets of his jeans. He knows that the aesthetic value of any object or activity cannot be measured hastily; the history of the avant-garde is the history of critics who rushed to judgment, whom time proved foolish. Here at the California Institute of the Arts, we must inch toward, rather than jump to, conclusions.

Jim continues to pummel himself and no one speaks. Words would be brutish and premature. And so we stare in a kind of numb reverence until a secretary from Admissions barrels into the dark room to deliver a phone message. She squints against the gloom and plunks herself into a chair beside Jim, holding out a folded note. “Your mother wants…”

He shushes her, punishes his knees.

She straightens her skirt and waits a moment. “Jim,” she says, “I haven’t got all day. Your mother wants you to…”

His fists stop midair, and he looks up from his lap. “I’m doing a performance,” he hisses. Just as the secretary turns and finally sees a roomful of students staring back at her, Jim lurches to his feet and hits the monitor’s off switch. Static evaporates. “Your mother,” she continues in utter darkness, “wants you to phone her after class.”

Jim opens the door and stomps into the hall, the secretary hurrying behind him and wagging the message in her outstretched hand. Darkness again when the door slams shut. The rustlings and murmurs of my classmates. I begin to wonder if the secretary’s intrusion was planned, like a certain performance in the Ice Capades that thrilled me as a child, the skater’s phony falls and failing props eliciting gasps from the audience. Maybe Jim’s temperamental exit was part of his performance, a comment on the fragility of artists’ egos. I can hear the instructor patting the cinder-block wall, groping for the light switch. Outside, sunlight is shining on the freeways, gas stations, fast-food chains, and tract homes surrounding the Valencia campus; whether or not Jim finishes his piece, the world will plod on. I can’t admit this aloud to anyone in the post-studio program, to do so would be considered retrograde and bourgeois, but I find myself longing for ordinary, unself-conscious acts—scratching an itch, swatting a fly—acts without the aftertaste of art.

Only days after receiving my MFA from CalArts, I abandoned my ambition to become an artist. I’d long been a secret reader of starkly emotive poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and I’d decided to apprentice myself to writing poetry, a move that, in hindsight, was merely trading in one set of career uncertainties for another. “Decided,” in fact, may be the wrong word; it would be like saying I’d “decided” to sneeze. Still, the impulse had a logic of its own: If art could be freed from its embodiment in an object, as the tenets of conceptualism suggested, then writing, with its intangible images, with its people and places manifest in language, was yet another step in what art critic Lucy Lippard called “dematerialization of the art object.” This was as post-studio as a guy could get, though a love of visual art, and my days studying it, would become a recurring subject in my books.

My awakening to the world of avant-garde art had taken place ten years earlier in my junior high school library. Light slanted through the venetian blinds. Rotary fans turned overhead, stirring currents of warm air. Every now and then the librarian quieted talkative children as she rolled a cart through the stacks. These details come back because, in a lifetime of generally sluggish and imperceptible change, there followed a moment of such abrupt friction between who I was and who I would become, it’s a wonder I didn’t erupt with sparks. Instead of looking up the major exports of Alaska for my geography report, I slouched in a chair and leafed through an issue of Life magazine. A boldface headline caught my attention: “You Bought It, Now Live with It.” The article profiled the handful of New York art collectors who were among the first to buy the work of pop artists. Although pop art was routinely savaged by critics for exalting the banal—billboards, supermarkets, Hollywood movies—this “new breed of collector” didn’t care.

“All that other stuff,” grumbled collector Leon Kraushar, referring to the sum total of art history before pop, “it’s old, it’s antique. Renoir? I hate him. Cézanne? Bedroom pictures. They’ll never kill pop, they’ll just be caught with their pants down.” They, Kraushar seemed to imply, were a bunch of stuffed shirts, scoffers and doubters, the self-appointed enemies of fun. Kraushar was shown in his Long Island house, lounging on the couch next to a stack of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Behind him stood a life-size plaster jazz trio by sculptor George Segal. The musicians held real instruments, their bodies frozen into a white glacier of improvisation.

Collector Harry Abrams, publisher of coffee-table books on art, watched the real television set that was embedded in Tom Wesselmann’s painting Still Life with Live TV. “Whether it’s on or off,” marveled Abrams, smiling from his recliner, “the painting is different every time I look at it.” Cleo Johnson, the Abramses’ maid, appeared undaunted by modern art; she took a bemused, sidelong glance at the clock in a huge, messy painting by Robert Rauschenberg. According to the caption, the clock worked. So did Cleo, who wore a starched uniform and carried a plate of corn bread.

Robert and Ethel Scull were perhaps the most avid collectors. Pictured in their immense Manhattan apartment, Mr. Scull, a taxicab magnate, watched his wife dust the plump enameled ham that sat atop Claes Oldenburg’s Stove with Meats. “Ethel thought I was crazy when the stove arrived,” Scull said, “but now she calls it ‘my emerald’ and won’t let anyone else touch it.” On the next page Mrs. Scull beamed while standing in front of the portrait she’d commissioned from Andy Warhol—innumerable mugging, multicolored Ethels.

As I turned the pages and stared at the photographs, it was difficult to tell the difference between a kitchen and a painting of a kitchen, or a man opening a door and a sculpture of a man opening a door. Reality was up for grabs, and my sudden unknowing made me giddy. I’d always thought that art sat mutely in a museum, but pop blared commercials, told the time, and had to be plugged into an electrical socket like an ordinary appliance. Yet the word ordinary didn’t apply; a soup can or a comic strip were more mesmerizing than I ever thought possible. Even advertisements in the magazine that featured, say, a box of frozen peas seemed otherworldly, lit from within.

Up until that day in the library I hadn’t known or cared much about contemporary art. What little I knew I had gleaned from the art in my parents’ house. I liked the Parisian street scene in our hallway; the pedestrians, with a few deft strokes, were reflected in the rain-soaked pavement. In our tropical-themed den a reproduction of a painting by Diego Rivera hung above a bamboo bar; a man with a basket strapped to his back was carrying fresh flowers to an open-air market, his body bent low by the weight of fuchsia blossoms.

But the most unsettling painting in my parents’ “collection” was a portrait by my older brother, Ron, of our eldest brother, Bob. The portrait had been hanging in the living room since Bob’s death from Hodgkin’s disease four years earlier. Ron painted as a hobby, the bedroom he’d once shared with Bob redolent of turpentine and linseed oil. A wooden easel was stationed by his bed, ready, I used to think, should he jump up inspired in the middle of the night.

Despite Ron’s limited technical skills, his portrait of Bob perfectly, if inadvertently, captured the physical essence of our brother’s illness; something in the thinness of the pigment, as grim as watery soup, never failed to remind me how chemotherapy had turned Bob’s skin translucent, as if he were stripped of all protection layer by layer, his ailing insides harder to ignore. My parents had hung the portrait in a heavy gold frame, their way of containing Bob’s memory forever, of paying him homage. In that sense the frame was like a headstone, strangely funereal for a portrait in which a 21-year-old boy with a flattop is dressed in a dapper shirt and tie, his eyes conveying the hope that he’s handsome. But none of these qualities in itself accounted for what turned out to be the painting’s revelation.

One afternoon I sat in the living room, steeped in the idleness that, at the age of nine, I regarded as a calling. Light from the bay window struck the portrait at an odd angle, and I noticed that the dots running down the center of Bob’s tie were more than decorative daubs of white paint. As I rose and walked closer, the dots resolved into tiny letters. “Oh Bob,” Ron had written on the tie. “Poor Bob.”

Ron had moved away from home to attend law school shortly after Bob’s death, leaving me, the late child, to grow up alone. Now he had his own car and apartment and part-time job—triumphs that exempted most young men from unhappiness, or so I supposed. Yet there it was in the afternoon light: the keening of one brother for another, a grief so precise, so carefully encoded, you had to stare long and hard before you noticed. I stood inches from the surface and couldn’t move. What other secret messages were embedded in the world? Could they be revealed by the act of looking?

A reclusive boy, especially now that my older brother had left home, I began to spend hours drawing with the pastels Ron had given me as a birthday gift, fascinated by the greasy lines, the hues blended by smudging the page. The nature of the medium—sticks of pigment as dense as clay—lent itself to landscape. Jon Gnagy, the exuberant art teacher on the TV show You Are an Artist, set up his easel every Saturday morning and gave lessons on how to render “majestic” mountains, “fleecy” clouds, and “babbling” brooks.

A not-too-woodsy plaid shirt became Gnagy’s sartorial trademark and added a note of gravity to an artsy panache. He sported relatively long hair for the day, along with a pointy Vandyke beard that anyone who harbored doubts about art might have found a tad satanic. Years later, when I first saw Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., a mustachioed and goateed reproduction of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it was Jon Gnagy who sprang to mind. Dubbed “America’s first television art teacher,” Gnagy sketched and painted each landscape in a race against time; the show lasted only about 10 minutes, not counting commercials. While drawing along with Gnagy—or rather, while trying to keep up with him—I seemed to float above the paper, a disembodied observer looking down into a world I was able to enter once it achieved enough depth and detail. The successful replication of a tree or a barn filled me with the thrill of omniscience. Yet despite the satisfaction in making those landscapes, they were, in the end, someone else’s idea of beauty, nothing more than quaint imitations.

Not until I came upon the article in Life did I see that art’s subject matter could spring from the city, from our very own home. Paintings by pop artists presented a point of view entirely different from Ron’s mournful portrait of Bob; pop was enamored of a world in which all that’s lost or obsolete is simply replaced by a newer model. Pop was based on unjudgmental wonder, without a trace of the suffering I was too young to know we each must bear, griefs as abundant and burdensome as Diego Rivera’s flowers.

Eager for more to read, I searched through the art section of Pickwick Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard (it was here that musical comedy star Ann Miller was reputed to have asked for ten yards of yellow books to match her living room walls). Newly published, Pop Art by John Rublowsky was among the first American publications to document the phenomenon of pop. The frontispiece was dominated by a photograph of artists Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol posed at a group exhibition of their work. The wan fashion model Jean Shrimpton stood among them, mascara-ed and miniskirted, her hair molded into the stiff, symmetrical curls of a “flip.” In another photo of the show, a few bewildered art patrons wandered among a roomful of Warhol’s Brillo boxes as if they’d stumbled into an industrial warehouse. Rublowsky’s book was prescient in that it treated these five artists as the celebrities they were to become, capturing for posterity their every brush stroke and contemplative pause. Each of them was given his own chapter and shown mixing paint or hefting rolls of canvas, hard at work in his cavernous studio. Each of them, that is, except for Andy Warhol, who reclined on a couch, relaxing like a sultan while two handsome assistants in T-shirts and tight jeans dragged a squeegee across his silk screen of Elizabeth Taylor. In the background dozens of other paintings by Warhol leaned against a wall, images of $1 bills, electric chairs, repeated over and over. The text explained that the detractors of pop found Warhol’s multiple images numbing, but they dazzled me, like the stutter of TV channels when I twisted the dial, or the logos and slogans and brand names that bombarded me every day: Duz, Malt-O-Meal, Dippity-Do. The glut of words and images made up a fine, intoxicating nonsense. Andy’s art was fun. I “got it” with a wallop.

Of course, I was mystified by the man himself. In every photograph he lacked expression, the skin of his face as tight and shiny as a marionette’s. He claimed that his fondest wish was to be a machine, and the text referred to his studio in Chelsea as the Factory. Its walls covered in aluminum foil, the place appeared as echoey and reflective as the inside of a tin can. A photograph showed Warhol dressed in a suit and sitting atop the Factory’s silver toilet. Though there was hardly a glimmer of natural light in the room, he wore a pair of sunglasses, the flashbulb reflected in his dark lenses like two bright but empty eyes.

The Factory attracted a gaggle of misfits on whom Warhol lavished his blank gaze. These were the “superstars” who slept, chain-smoked, or rambled aimlessly in his movies. I hadn’t actually seen a Warhol film, but they sounded like an avant-garde version of my favorite television show, Candid Camera, where the host, Allen Funt, “caught people in the act of being themselves.” I thought of the Factory as the home of an eccentric family for whom Warhol, with his ghostly pallor and silver hair, was a kindly albino uncle.

High art and low, the significant and the trivial—Uncle Andy made no such distinctions. I couldn’t have put it into words back then; there was something appealing in this neutral viewpoint. I liked his painting of chicken noodle soup better than his painting of navy bean soup because I thought it was a better flavor, though not necessarily a better painting. For what other reason could I have preferred one over the other? They were virtually the same painting with different labels. The absurdity of this judgment, or lack of judgment, was not lost on me, nor was its shock value. When I brought Rublowsky’s book to my mother and showed her the soup can paintings, she looked askance and patted the spongy rollers in her hair. My mother was a woman who shopped avidly and often, maneuvering her cart down grocery store aisles with the instinct of a tigress hunting for prey; she seemed to sense ridicule, rather than celebration, in Warhol’s oeuvre. “Da Vinci,” she said, “he isn’t.”

In some ways it’s surprising that my mother couldn’t appreciate the bounty of commercial subject matter that typified Warhol’s work. My parents were second-generation Jews whose families had immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. Growing up in Chicago tenements, they’d heard their own parents bemoan in Yiddish the comforts and conveniences they lacked. Now that my parents had moved to the Golden State and my father was solvent in his law practice, they were thrilled to be able to buy luxury items like five-speed blenders and portable TVs. They’d open these purchases with great ceremony, intone the instructions like Talmudic texts—“Make sure switch is in off position!”—and unfailingly mail the warranty cards. It was a point of pride that they stocked our Spanish-style house in Hollywood with brand-name instead of discount products. “Why buy crap,” my father would ask, “when you get something good for a few pennies extra?”

Yet those ancient days of scarcity had bred in them the habit of hoarding. They’d secret away the smallest objects, odds and ends that others might have discarded without a second thought. My mother reused sheets of tinfoil and kept a bird’s nest of rubber bands in a kitchen drawer. Claiming she needed them when she cleaned, she stuffed the utility closet with rags, shreds of the clothes and bedsheets she couldn’t bear to part with. She’d stock our pantry with, say, two dozen cans of fruit cocktail if they happened to be on sale, and that flaccid, pale, syrupy fruit garnished our plates for weeks to come. So crammed were our cupboards that during the Cuban missile crisis, I remember being certain that we’d duck and cover when the bomb was dropped, then sit in the rubble and feast like kings.

My father also stockpiled the flotsam of our prosperous life. On the shelves of his workbench in the garage, rows of used jelly jars held screws, washers, eye hooks, nails of various sizes and degrees of straightness, fuses, thumbtacks, and stray springs whose origins were a mystery. Should the need for one of these remnants arise, he’d pluck it from a jar and go about his chores, as if it were a small but crucial detail he’d recalled while telling a story. “It’s meshuga,” he’d always say, “but you never know what’ll come in handy.” Cash in hand, my parents assimilated into American life, but with the nagging apprehension that their prosperity would end. No matter how much money my father earned, no matter how often my mother shopped, no matter what they packed into cupboards or kept in glass jars, their belongings were borrowed, meager things, the deprivations of the tenement only a reminiscence away. We lived, I was given to understand, in a house full of fine but tenuous possessions.

Pop was a movement tailor made for the son of first-generation Americans, a boy who’d been weaned on the promise of plenty. Pop wanted me to have art that was push button, wide screen, charcoal filtered, ready to eat, disposable, and one size fits all. Pop wanted me to enjoy things while they lasted and didn’t sneer at the world just because it was fleeting and gaudy. “Pop art represents our particular moment,” wrote Rublowsky, “reflecting this particular civilization in its acceptance of the mechanized and mass-produced. These artists face the now, the today. Tomorrow they leave to the future.” I loved the martial tone of those lines and had never thought of today as a noun, a thing I might possess as well as live through.

Every Saturday on Channel 4, Jon Gnagy continued to churn out a seemingly inexhaustible array of majestic, fleecy, and babbling landscapes, and yet I began to view his art through the lens of irony. He made bad art that was good because it was bad. Posing before his easel, he played the role of eccentric artist as celebrity. Gnagy, in short, was an unwitting Warhol.

By the time I was 14, the few assumptions I had about beauty were turning inside out. Art didn’t have to be somber and lofty; it could be as laughable and blunt as a pratfall. All the “serious” art I’d seen in reproduction—Mona Lisa, The Blue Boy, The Thinker—rankled with its piety and made me impatient. Sure, these might have been masterpieces in their time, but to honor them and ignore the world around us seemed a kind of hopeless nostalgia. The amber light of Renaissance landscapes, the still life’s cascade of flawless grapes—such antiquated themes barely roused my interest. Printed on T-shirts and place mats and posters, masterpieces were as common as weeds. Eschewing claims to greatness, turning its back on posterity, pop won me over by being unpretentious. Pop was the hick cousin who shows up at a black-tie affair in a checkered suit, loud yet guileless, a breath of fresh air. “Trash Can School,” “the New Vulgarians”—when epithets were hurled at pop, my devotion only deepened.

There were nights when pondering the democracy of pop art left me too agitated to sleep and I would throw off the covers, fevered with the need to draw. Pastels had come to seem crude, and so I sketched with a sharp lead pencil. Using newspaper and magazine advertisements as models, I drew TV dinners, vacuum cleaners, and frosty mugs of A&W root beer. We lived in the foothills a few blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard, and whenever I stopped drawing long enough to look out my window, I saw the glow of city lights rising from the L.A. basin, obscuring all but the brightest stars.

On a few occasions insomnia stirred me to compose rambling manifestos, a word I’d learned from Rublowsky’s book. In one manifesto, dated 1966, I scrawled in the looping cursive of my teens: “Taking something that means nothing and making it art just by CALLING it art is something we have taken too long to do! It is glorifing [sic] the ordinary—producing excitement from dull [sic]—purpose from purposeless [sic]—IT IS ART! IT IS MORE THAN ART!!!” I’d caught the spirit of hyperbole, which resulted in the royal we, capitalized words, and rampant exclamation marks.

When visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one followed a concrete walkway through the La Brea Tar Pits, which bubbled and stank with prehistoric ooze, fiberglass mastodons lurking at their edges. I rode the elevator directly to the 20th century, located on the fourth and uppermost floor of the Ahmanson Building, and skipped the floors that contained the old art. To see modern art was to rise above anything out of date, leaving it behind to sink in the pitch.

That summer I went to the museum’s Edward Kienholz retrospective shortly after it had opened, and before county supervisor Warren Dorn began a campaign to make the exhibit off-limits to minors. The piece that most enraged him—for weeks it was impossible to turn on the television without seeing him railing against the immorality of modern art—was titled Back Seat Dodge ’38. In a dark exhibit bay the squat blue Dodge sat on a patch of plastic grass littered with empty beer bottles, its red taillights blinking like a distress signal, its windows filmy with grime. One of the car’s doors had been flung open, and through it I could hear static-y pop songs wafting from the car’s interior. The brash curiosity with which I usually approached a work of art was tempered, in this case, with caution.

Two figures grappled on the backseat. A chicken-wire man lay atop a plaster woman, slipping his hand beneath her skirt. In contrast to the weighty, earthbound woman, the man was transparent and ill defined, his passion a jumble of form without substance. The shabby, desperate rites of sex—I was riveted by the aura of menace, though too uneasy to look for long.

Also on display was another notorious tableau by Kienholz: The Beanery. A nearly full-scale replica of Barney’s Beanery on Santa Monica Boulevard, the work was inhabited by patrons whose faces were stopped clocks and whose plaster bodies had been basted in amber shellac, as if the artist had made a futile attempt to preserve their flesh. A tape loop of drunken chatter along with a chemical replicating the smell of stale beer added to the stifling atmosphere. What had the greatest effect on me, however, was a misspelled sign above the bar: FAGOTS STAY OUT! When I overheard a docent tell a group of museumgoers that the same sign hung above the real beanery, I felt myself grow hot with shame; in those days I was so convinced that my desire for men was unforgivable, I never considered the possibility that Kienholz may have included the sign to indict the drunks who drooped from bar stools or to comment on the pecking order in a roost of losers. Instead I pictured myself despised in the future, banished from even unsavory places.

For weeks afterward I mulled over the Kienholz exhibit, wondering what his work could tell me about the world. More than anything else in my life, art’s provocations, whether pleasant or unsettling, engaged and sustained me. I was becoming aware of the dual citizenship of an artistic life, how I lived within the actual world as well as within its internal reflection.


My phase of artistic apprenticeship continued throughout junior high school. I bought a small primed and prestretched canvas at the local art supply store and set out to paint something in the hard-edged manner of Roy Lichtenstein. I looked around the house for a suitably mundane subject and chose my father’s razor blades. The blade was blunt on one side, with the brand name, Gem, embossed along the edge. In some vague way I was intrigued by the incongruity between the name and the object, but mostly I figured that, being a simple rectangle, it would be easy to render. Woozy from paint fumes, swept away by the glee of completion, I ran downstairs and showed the painting to my parents, holding the canvas from behind by its stretcher bars and waiting for murmurs of appreciation. That my parents might react with a kind of mute incredulity to their teenage son having painted a huge razor blade hadn’t crossed my mind, and when I lowered the canvas from in front of my face, I saw that they were wearing suspiciously wide smiles, like mouths that had been cut from toothpaste ads and stuck onto their otherwise troubled faces.

What’s it called?” my mother asked, ever diplomatic.

“Gem,” I said.

My father grunted.

“And you plan to hang it where?” asked my mother.

“I guess in my room.”

They exhaled with relief.

I dismissed their lack of enthusiasm as precisely the kind of misunderstanding my artist heroes must endure every day. In fact, my parents’ incomprehension turned out to be far more gratifying than their approval ever could have been.

With each passing month it seemed that the chasm between my parents and me opened wider. Mystified by my passion for art, they never asked a question or ventured a comment, afraid to betray any sign of ignorance about the culture they strived to blend into. My immersion in the avant-garde must have reminded them that the country in which they’d worked so hard to find a stable place was rapidly changing: color TV, area codes, Strip-o-Grams, passenger jets. Their youngest son was becoming a stranger. Still, their parenting had been based not only on the liberal wisdom of Dr. Spock but on a Jewish ethos that honors intellectual investigation of all kinds; as a result, they left me pretty much to my own devices. I prided myself on being in touch with, if not ahead of, the times. My parents remained on the shores of the Old World, with its bland cooking and Yiddishisms, while I eagerly departed for the new.


When Mr. Baldessari finds the switch, the room revives in a shuddering flood of fluorescent light. He considers what to do now that Jim has left in a huff. He touches a finger to his lips, thinking. The seminar is barely half over. Since the monitor is already here, he decides to show one of his own videos and mumbles something about how the piece, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, caused a stir when it was shown at a gallery in Milan. He rummages through his dilapidated briefcase and slides a cassette into the console.

The camera’s viewpoint is stationary, and the performance, thanks to films like Andy Warhol’s eight-hour-long Empire, unfolds in “real time.” This is the phenomenon I remember most about graduate school: real time sagging in seminars, in the vast cafeteria, in the ultramodern library, and especially in the labyrinth of long white hallways as I searched among hundreds of identical rooms for classes in “Earth-Works,” “The Happening,” “Movement as Anti-Dance,” “The Death of Painting in the Seventies,” “The End of Art.”

If reticent in class, Mr. Baldessari is quite enthusiastic in his video. He stands facing a small potted plant and holds up, one by one, 26 flash cards. The leaves are so pert, they seem to pay attention. He croons, chants, sounds out each letter with loving persistence. At first the futility is funny—that poor dumb flora! But I begin to lose interest at about F or G and think how odd it was that the secretary had walked into a pitch-dark room where a young man, apparently alone, sat in a chair while beating his knees to the sound of static, the sight of which didn’t alarm her in the least, didn’t so much as give her pause. Had everyone at CalArts become so inured to the avant-garde that no behavior, regardless how bizarre, could shake our composure or quicken our pulse? Had the “cutting edge” grown dull at last?

These questions found an answer when I thumbed through an anthology of contemporary American poetry in the CalArts library. Randall Jarrell’s “The Sick Child” is written in the voice of a bedridden boy who, desperate for fresh daydreams, says into the darkness: “If I can think of it, it isn’t what I want. / …somewhere there must be / something that’s different from everything. / All that I’ve never thought of—think of me!” How well I recognized—would always recognize—the impatient desire behind those lines, lines that could just as easily have been spoken by an artist hoping to surprise himself by imagining all he hasn’t yet imagined.

Bernard Cooper’s most recent book is The Bill from My Father (Simon & Schuster).

This feature was originally published in the January 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine