IT was a move from one red leather armchair to another, and this
time the reading material was different.
In 1966, I left my home in a small city in Illinois to go to
boarding school in Connecticut. I wanted to go; it was my idea. But
I knew I would miss one very special room in my home, the library.
It was where I went to take my weekly trip into the New Yorker.
I knew more about what was going on in that city, to which I had
been only twice in my life, than I did about what was happening
down the block.
The New Yorker was always there, warming in the winter on the
shelf over the radiator, ready for me to pick up for my little
excursions. Also there in the library was the row of decades of the
monthly American Heritage. I read and reread stories about famous
Americans, stories that I would never get in a history book at
Hufford Junior High. Ceiling to floor, the bookshelves lining the
room were filled with novels, old textbooks from Dad's medical
school, an encyclopedia, history books (Durant, Churchill, etc.),
and best of all, art books.
I sat in the big leather armchair in that room, wrapped myself
in a comforter, and started a fire when it was cold. There, I read
the New Yorker and those books, particularly, as the years went by,
the art books.
When I got to that school in Connecticut, I found that the
library was a bigger version of what I had at home, with more
books, more magazines, and more big red leather armchairs. Early in
my first year there, I picked up a copy of Art in America and began
reading about and looking at work that was completely new to me,
the work of artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The art
in the books in my parent's home was pre-World War II. Abstract
Expressionism was a new and resonant world to me.
I spent hours poring over issues of that magazine, learning in a
willy-nilly fashion about these artists and studying images of
their art. And the name of one institution kept coming up, the
Museum of Modern Art in New York. I wanted to go there. Finally, I
By my sophomore year, I had convinced my parents to let me go to
New York alone. I remember walking into the museum and noticing the
huge spiraling staircase with an Alexander Calder mobile (by then I
knew from the magazine what a Calder was) hanging overhead. I paid
and went in. I went straight for Rothko and company, and I was
amazed at the scale of the work, huge canvases inviting not only a
look but an immersion into color and mystery.
I had never seen anything like this place. The building and the
art took me on a leap into the "now." My parents had beautiful art
in their books and on their walls. But this was art that fed more
than my hunger for beauty. It was art that told me that I was not
alone in how I felt about being alive in America in the mid-20th
When I was about to leave the museum I was stopped in my tracks
by a picture unlike any I had ever seen: large canvas composed of
just two colors, orange and green, a large bright green square
surrounded on three sides by a field of orange. The painting was by
the minimalist Ellsworth Kelly. There was no confusion, no overlap
in its two bright color fields with clean geometric borders.
I stood in front of this picture for a long time.
It was like a mantra for the eye. I felt that I was in the
presence of something new and true. That picture gave me,
gradually, the experience of "zero," not as deprivation but as a
new kind of fullness. I bought a poster of that painting and have
had it with me ever since.
In 1974, I went to Yale to study theology. No one was more
surprised by this decision than I was. A year before I had been
planning for law school, but when I finally listened to my heart
instead of my fears I realized that I was no more suited for a law
career than I was for my father's medical profession. …