I was thirteen when I stopped drawing. I became a painter instead. Not painting but simply being a painter, pure and bare, was enough for me and with little interruption lasted four years. But my idea could not survive forever in the world, and when I turned seventeen it occurred to me to enter a museum. I was the child of educated parents and the student of fine schools and I had, of course, been dragged through museums and museums, world without end; but I had never gone by free choice or entered, so to speak, with my eyes open. There was a retrospective of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian at the Museum of Modern Art, and a reviewer, quoted in advertisements, had called him "too difficult for ordinary eyes." But I was a painter; I was seventeen.
I walked calmly through the first room, studying each picture in turn with respectful condescension. I saw a landscape with a ditch, a wood, a cow eating grass next to pointed hayricks. This man Mondrian, I thought, had a talent, but one that was safely muffled. The images were all without sharp definition, as were the colors, and it was not to any end that I could see. I would have said that he had found the street he wanted but not the house. I looked at my watch and realized that if Mondrian was no harder than this I would leave the show much too early for lunch.
I stopped in front of the hayricks feeling unhappy at the prospect of a slow and tedious morning and trying to make the best of it. I was, at the time, sufficiently flexible of mind that I found other things to look at. I was surprised to discover that the brown and white cow wore on her back only the suggestion of a pattern, but one that was of clear intent, one that mirrored the clouds in the sky. The grass was in its color really an ocean, the hayricks reflected the church steeple, there was a crescent moon in the dark blue sky. The line of trees and building tops that divided heaven from earth, the blue from the green, was a painting in itself -- just in time I noticed the badly painted girl beside the cow. I had not noticed her yet because her blue dress did not stand out from the dark grass, because her perspective was flawed, and because she was perfectly flat. She was a blue smudge with vague yellow hair and only a gesture toward features: she was clearly a mistake. Thus reassured I congratulated the painter for the successes of his painting, and myself for my generosity of spirit.
I was further reassured, as I continued, by a self-portrait and a portrait of a girl with flowers. The hayricks had seemed to point to powerful colors, but he had lost his edge, and the brown colors of the painted artist were nothing better than adept. They hesitated. The girl and her flowers were even better: cheap, sentimental, and frightened of sharp lines. I mean to say that Mondrian set me up for an ambush, because I walked in the next room directly into sight of his Windmill in Sunlight and I swayed on my feet.
A glorious red windmill burst out against a yellow sky, at the bottom dissolving into its own reflection: a pond set in an orange ground, at the top leaning back proudly, its arms tall in unmoving majesty. The painting was made of thick lines of color, wavering or broken, that were all on the point of resolving into perfection.
At that age, if someone mentioned marriage or love, it did not bother me, because I had already kissed a girl and that was more or less the same thing. But if I saw with my own eyes two lovers walking down the road with arms entwined, I walked the other way; I could not pretend that this was not something different. What I could not dismiss I denied. But this windmill in sunlight entranced me: I could ignore it no more than I could comprehend it. I stood before the painting as if before God, experiencing transcendence but still feeling overwhelmed, until finally I took a few shaken steps to the next one.
I was subdued. The next few paintings were closer in style to the self-portrait, though better, but I was quiet; I felt nothing but the dull peace of convalescence. I had no relationship with these paintings, I passed them by with wary respect. I tried to save my strength because it was clear that they were leading to more beauty. A delicate white chrysanthemum, for example, I only glanced at. I stumbled my way with shame and humility to a tall red amaryllis, in a light blue bottle, in a blue field.
I saw this Amaryllis with some relief. It was more perfect than the windmill, but also more static, more subtle so more contained, more fully realized and therefore less dynamic. The painter had in his ascent trembled my earth and disturbed the air before my eyes, but with this flower he was safely away in heaven. There was as much intelligence, I thought, in this painting as in the other, but it did not shine out from the wall and demand my attention. I could admit to myself that it was a great painting and then leave it alone. But it was not yet so great that it was past all need to be looked at.
I stood and enjoyed the amaryllis; I forgot the time; I was glad to be there. When I finally began walking again, I dismissed the strangely colored landscapes that I passed as irrelevant. I ignored their evolution and decided that they represented an artist's vacation from his true progress. The ambush this time was more subtle -- all I felt, when I came on The Red Mill, was mild surprise. I think that I even said to myself, That's rather large.
The painting was almost as tall as I was at the time, and its color and design were simple. There was a massive red windmill in a field of nocturnal blue; a brief, slightly darker blue divided ground from sky. If not for the windmill's moving arms, the picture would have been symmetrical, but such symmetry is meaningless; it would have been impossible, even by mathematical implication, to divide that great and solitary tower in two.
I could not walk away from it, and as I stood before it, it began to burn itself into my eyes and entirely into me. After a few seconds I heard a rushing sound as if my eyes and my ears and body were opening to the sheer force of the red mill, wider and wider. My use of the term "God" in describing the last windmill now seems trivial because this red windmill was God, great and terrible, and I cowered before it.
And then the presence was withdrawn and I continued. As I moved through room after room, I came to the conclusion that I had been measured by that mill and had failed. The experiments with black lines and gray colors ignored me, and then when the work readmitted pink and orange and blue, it did not need me at all. As the colors turned to squares and the squares to grids I felt that the meaning of this painting was moving further and further away from me.
I came to a great diamond of crossing gray lines. The square canvas had been turned over so that its corners pointed left and right and toward heaven and earth: it was an all-encompassing spiritual prison. And I came, finally, to the works for which Mondrian is best known, his irregular black and white grids with squares of primary color. It was now eleven in the morning; I stood before those perfect dangerous squares until the museum closed for the night. I spent the long day staring at paintings that shone to me bright and impenetrable as a beetle's shell: hostile, alien, opaque. They did not waver before my eyes, but I did not intend to leave until I had broken them open, and in the end I was gently led out by a uniformed guard.
I was so silent and withdrawn at dinner that evening that my mother began to cry. I was touched by this only insofar as I was briefly glad, after she had stormed out of the room, that my father did not speak to me. I sat in my dark bedroom for an hour or two after dinner, not quite thinking, and went to sleep, and in the mo