Recently, Pulitzer-prize winning art critic Jerry Saltz asked this question on Instagram that prompted me to tell a story I’d been thinking about for a while: What was the first work of art that put a spell on you; that might have changed your life? What happened?
Anyone familiar with Picasso’s blue period knows his 1901 painting L’enfant au pigeon (usually translated "Child with a Dove"). It depicts a little girl with very short hair in a long dress with a big bow. She is gently cradling a dove (or pigeon) in her hands. The feathers of the bird’s tail are indicated with a few strokes in a herringbone pattern. There is a multicolored ball at her feet. She is looking out at the viewer with a solemn gaze. I always loved the simple chunkiness of the composition—everything described with a few black lines, especially the downward sloping, uneven horizontal dividing floor from wall (or grass from sky, depending on how you look at it), with Picasso’s familiar signature sitting on it, halfway up the picture.
When I was born, my godparents gave me a framed print of "The Child and the Pigeon" (as we called it, most likely thanks to my Francophone godmother). It was not an expensive or archival-quality print. The colors were probably never very accurate. One year, as a birthday present, my parents had it reframed in a new wooden frame with a large brown matte, which suited its dingy, faded colors very well. We moved a lot—Connecticut to California to upstate New York to Texas. And "The Child and the Pigeon" came with me to each new house. This little print has been with me all my life—it’s hanging in my bedroom right now, in New Hampshire.
In the early 1980s, I spent three months in England. I took a semester off from the University of Texas at Austin to earn the money for the trip by answering phones in the office of a warehouse for a company that had contracted to provide standardized tests for the state of Texas. We tracked the tests going out and the tests coming back. I learned the names of so many small towns that spring: Dime Box, Kermit, Prosper, London.
In the “real” London, I went to as many museums as possible and saw all the art I could. I was in the National Gallery (probably, though I remember it as the Tate) and I had seen a lot of art that day and was feeling the need to leave. Looking for the exit, I went around a corner onto a little balcony with a few steps leading down into a larger gallery. That’s when I saw it.
I hadn’t even known it was there and it took me completely by surprise. The colors were so strong, so powerful, that it was like being confronted by a supernatural force. You know that feeling when you step out of Plato’s cave and see the true forms instead of the shadows on the wall? It was like that. I was knocked back and, quite literally, had to grab the balcony railing to keep from falling over.
Until that moment, I had had no idea how many colors were in the wall, in the floor, in the dress. How thick and expressive the brushstrokes were. I love paint. How could I not have known about the paint? It was a revelation.
And it was huge. The original painting is supposed to be 28.75 inches by 21.25 inches, so about twice the size of the print in my room. But I could swear it was at least six feet high. In my memory, the Child is larger than life, and she always will be.
So was Picasso’s "Child with a Dove" the first painting to put a spell on me? To change my life? I think so, but in a subtler, more insidious way than I think Saltz was asking about. Living with that print from infancy imprinted ideas about composition and line on me in ways that continue to affect my work today. If you look at what I’m doing now, you might not immediately see the connection, but it’s there. And that experience of being punched in the face by color reinforced what I want my own paintings to do. I want the color to grab you and shake you and throw you off a balcony. But in a good way. Always in a good way.
L'enfant au pigeon, Pablo Picasso, 1901, Qatar Museum Authority