Picture thin lines — red, blue, sage, beige — zigzagging clean white linen.
Picture the lines drawn on city maps –Dublin, Glasgow, Paris, Seville, Lisbon, Athens, Zagreb– and then on larger world maps with less detail and more room, in tight snarls and blooming arcs across the flat blue seas. Picture how he cut lines into maps with Exacto knives, and how, when he turned the maps around, the shapes were always surprising. Picture the care with which he painted those shapes onto stark white canvases, how the canvases hung on enormous bare walls.
Later. That came later.
Sometimes, the lines formed elaborate patterns that looked like flowers. Those were my favorite when I was a kid, but I could tell that he preferred when I noticed the more terse geometric shapes (evidently emblematic of the urban experience). When I noticed those pieces, he made me feel as though I’d done something right. While he designated one of my bedroom walls as a place for me to paint and gave me impassioned talks about creativity, what he really wanted was for me to be a pared-down minimalist version of him. He really went for empty space, except for the fact that he was actually a monumental slob in his day-to-day life, and his workspace (which he famously refused to allow anyone to photograph) was cluttered and far truer to his voracious nature than he would ever admit. Picture the care with which he drew those lines for years, repeating the journey — ours — over and over again. My understanding was that his work came from a brief window of time, that he drew upon specific maps used during specific trips, taken when I was a baby. He has said both publicly and privately that his inspiration came from wanting me to know exactly where I was during the earliest months of my life, which were so very precious to him. That because I was with him and my mother but experiencing the journey in my own way (namely that I’d never remember it), he became preoccupied with not only my emerging perception but with all unconscious perception — what affects us when we are sleeping? When we are babies? My father also said he saw this early series as the beginning of a lifelong conversation with his hands-down favorite person. He said this to an Artforum journalist and was surprised when my mother read the quote and cried.
My father is from Idaho and my mother is from Madrid. They met while studying art history in Bologna and eloped in a municipal building one month into their education. When she came to meet my father’s family, it was her first trip to America. She had been raised a communist, and my father wanted to show her the famously wide-open spaces. Two color photos exist from that trip: one of my father (with an obviously proud smile) standing in front of a brown convertible and one of my mother with her head thrown back, asleep in its passenger seat. My father claims she would fall asleep the minute they hit the highway and that, as he drove, he’d glance over at her, vacillating between wanting to wake her up and marveling at how peaceful she seemed. He wondered if she assimilated any of the scenery anyway, if her body retained the sights even if, in her dreams, she was elsewhere.
Everyone said that early was the time to do it, when the baby needs nothing but milk and sleep. Picture my mother — too tired to decide on which language to speak to me, too drowsy to be delighted with how her normally small breasts were now cartoon balloons—nursing me on trains. Picture my father—looking out the filmy windows of these trains, budgeting and taking unremarkable photographs of my first smiles, my slightly crossed infant eyes and of my mother either turning her head away or offering a mega-watt smile; she is terrible at acting candid. Picture my father already wondering how this trip would look mapped out and abstracted. Picture how he’d light a Parliament, only to put it out and apologize, kiss my mother and fiddle with the keys to their apartment on Varick Street, which was sublet to one of my mother’s former students for at least a year. See how he was already wondering if the image he envisioned — lines on linen, precision without context — would capture the feeling he had right then: in love with my mother but restless, orbiting both wife and daughter in train compartments and hotel rooms, in foreign parks and cafes, and he wondered if the piece he’d create would suggest how he was hurtling through time, free in the world the way traveling sets you free, but trapped too into schedules and currency exchange rates, tethered to life’s day-to-day banalities because of traveling, fine, but also because of me.
Picture his young face with old-soul hollows under hazel eyes, wide cheekbones and freckles scattered oddly — only on his forehead. Picture my mother, whose blue-black hair (my hair) rarely needed washing, who is one inch taller than my father and was thinner than she should’ve been only three months after giving birth. Do not picture me.