It seemed so simple, dark against light.
From the back of the studio, Liza Baker only had to tilt her head to look out the window and see the comings and goings on the street below—West 8th Street. The sky was thick and snow fell like a wash of white, turning the figures into shadowy forms trying to break into definition. Any dabs of color that might highlight the street, a yellow umbrella or a green overcoat, even the pink of frozen noses, were obliterated by the snow flailing against the backdrop of buildings. Liza paused, transfixed by pedestrians moving in and out of visibility, pushing through the cold, the wind, the shroud of whiteness. So easy to decipher; the drama, the struggle. Certainly more obvious than the still life set up in the center of the room for her painting class. A red ball, a rusted bicycle wheel, a handful of pigeon feathers, a drapery of cellophane, all mottled by the overhead light.
Suddenly she could feel a presence behind her. She turned. Her teacher, Hans Hofmann, stood motionless, staring at her drawing, his brow tight, his lips pulled in at the edges. He was a big man and Liza could feel the weight of his criticism gathering like a storm. She looked at the piece of paper tacked to her easel, a maze of gray forms protruding off the white surface. Protruding, Protruding.
The word pounded inside her head, reprimanding her even before her teacher could speak. The picture plane is flat. Yet your form protrudes. You have lost the picture plane! They were his words amplified by her frustration. Could no one else hear? Liza sensed the other students nearby. Though she did not look up, she could feel pity in their silence.
Finally, Hofmann moved. Without a word, he reached his arm toward her, took the charcoal from her hand and drew three thick lines across her work. “Now this is tension,” he announced, his strong German accent filling the room like an echo. Then he walked away.
There were other criticisms, other students’ failed work, she could be sure of that, yet Liza had stopped registering the comments. She removed Hofmann’s altered drawing and tacked up a fresh sheet of paper. Then, without thought, without reference to anything save the agitation shooting up and down her spine, she drew three lines and let it go at that.
After class, she hurried to wrap her scarf into the collar of her coat and tucked the legs of her corduroy pants into old work boots, cracked and beginning to leak. Several students were considering how to navigate their large portfolios through the snow.
A hand grabbed her shoulder.
“Hey, Liza, you coming for a drink?” It was Hank, a promising young student from Philadelphia. Bold in his work. Outspoken too. His bravado had attracted her soon after they met.
“No. Not today.”
“C’mon, Liza, baby.” He spun her around to look at her face. “What, you’re not upset, are you?” She shook her head, tried to break her shoulder free.
“You are, aren’t you?” He was smirking at her with his unbearable self-confidence.
“Stop it, Hank.” Liza wiggled free and pulled a pair of gloves from her pocket.
“Look, he marks on everyone’s work. We’re just students, after all. Here to learn.” Liza shot back a perfunctory smile, then turned to leave.
“One drink?” Hank asked, stepping after her.
“Got to go.”
She darted around easels, out the door and down the three flights of stairs, surprised at her agility under layers of clothes. The shock of cold air and snowflakes against her face startled her as she leapt onto the sidewalk, joining the few human forms moving through the storm. The wind yanked the flakes sideways, upward, sideways again like erratic marionettes, until they paused mid-air and settled on the ground, a thick, lumpy carpet that clung to Liza’s boots as she plodded through. She crossed her arms over her chest, made her way to Fifth Avenue and turned toward the park.
Why was she here? Not here in New York. That was obvious. She had come with her childhood friend Tess the previous fall to study painting. But the National Academy, which suited Tess, only bored Liza with its rigid traditions. She was looking for something less formal and stilted. But what?
“You should look into Hans Hofmann’s school,” another student mentioned one day.
“The modernist from Europe. If you like that sort of thing.”
Yes, yes! Liza could feel her blood pick up speed. A miracle, the vision of Cézanne, Soutine, Picasso, Kandinsky, the modern painters whose work she studied for hours in the museums in New York. Paintings that tore everything apart—form, perspective, space, even color. How this new work coming out of Europe calmed her with its passion, courage and honesty, ripping tradition to shreds, stripping the surface to expose the turbulent energies within. Standing in front of this new work, Liza felt awake. Alive! More than that, she realized she had finally found her community. Those who dared to ask questions, who craved truth above all else, no matter how shattering or alienating. This is what is real. Not the cool exterior of her placid father, the good doctor, a man beloved in their small town by the lake in New Hampshire that attracted people escaping cities for the summer, families like Tess’s. Not the rules, the niceties, the freshly painted houses and neat interiors, the life as usual that was ground into her as a child. The flat surface that drove her crazy. If only one could scratch it, mess it up, rip it open, look! What creatures would be set free and fly away. What darkness and despair. And the hard-crusted, bruising scales of fear. But also hope. Really, if people only let themselves look. There is such purpose, such beauty here.
If she liked this sort of thing. Ha, she countered, this work was her salvation.
That Hofmann had accepted her, too, was a miracle. As he studied her work for what seemed an interminable time, she struggled to sit still, feeling like a helpless child instead of a capable, twenty-four-year-old woman. Finally—when she thought she could not bear another moment—he had said, “Yes.” It was at that moment that Liza was sure her life had begun. Hearing that yes as he closed her portfolio. That affirmation of her potential. Or was it Tess’s good perfume she had sprayed on hurriedly as she left? Maybe it was just the perfume.
Liza had reached Washington Square Park and stopped under the arch to hold her gloved hands out to the snow. How she loved this city, the trees that strained to grow out from cement, the odd mix of buildings, of people, the ever- changing smells. A palpable energy coming off the streets, from around the sharp edges of buildings, that could nearly pick her up and twirl her around just as the wind did the snow. But she felt paralyzed by the weight of Hofmann’s criticism and the impossibility of his class.
She felt a zing of impact at the back of her head. Smack! Smack!
Two at her back, a clump of white whistled by her face.
Then the laugh, an annoying cackle of victory.
Hank was doubled over, several yards away, folded into his laughter.
“You should see your face.”
“Fuck you, Hank.”
Hank laughed harder. “Your face is bright red. Look at you dripping, covered with snow. You look like a snowman in hell.”
He approached her then, stopped laughing, and began wiping her face with the end of his scarf, dabbing the melted snow that had beaded onto her eyelashes like two waves of tiny jewels.
“Even so, you are still the most beautiful thing.”
As she tucked her fingers into the rim of her collar to clean out the cold, Liza made a face. He did look funny, his cheeks glowing red, his brown eyes peeking out from beneath his wool cap, his gaze hopeful. Liza could have said something curt, but when he lifted his arm to wrap it around her shoulders, she decided to let her resistance go.
“You must be frozen. Let me buy you something hot to drink,” he said.
Hours later, Liza uncurled herself from his arms. His skin was warm from sex, his bedroom overheated from the radiator that seemed to respond to nothing but ‘off’ and ‘hot’. It had been easy falling into bed with Hank. He was attractive enough with his clean-cut, chiseled features, someone comfortable in a three-piece suit. He reminded Liza of the boys she had dallied with at the boarding school when she was in high school, teased really. A challenge coming from these boys of privilege, oozing superiority. How badly they treated the girls at the local public school, the ones who longed for nothing more than attachments to eminent families. They could be talked easily into sex, mistaking it for commitment. Silly girls. But not Liza. She too just wanted sex. How it drove the boys crazy that she was done with them afterward. She had other things that mattered more to her and honestly did not care.
Hank did not stir as she eased his hand back on the pillow. It was dark outside. The snow had stopped. She opened the window, stood naked behind the glass to witness the still city, not a movement, barely a noise, covered in sparkling snow, only the buildings as bones of form to define the clean white space in between.
She found some charcoal and Hank’s sketchbook on his dresser and began to draw, sliding the charcoal sideways up and down to cover the paper in a layer of black. Then she ground down quick, determined lines. With the ball of an eraser, she worked away the black in between, pulling white space out of the dark. Quick, hard lines up and down against the rubbing in of white.
And then she saw. This was what Hofmann had meant in his lectures, confusing enough in his broken English, overwhelming in concept. The picture plane is a two-dimensional surface. There should be no trickery of perspective. No illusion of depth. It is simply about flatness and the tension of the surface. “Put the spot on the surface and let the surface answer back,” he had said during her first class. Color, line, space of the form, the space outside it, and movement, always movement. The ideas had whirled around her brain, colliding in confusion. Create tensions between form, between solid and void, movement and stability. Activate your surface with the creation of forces that push and pull. This was how you bring your surface to life. It was all there, in the push-pull, the energy of tension.
Working now in the darkness, drawing almost without thought, it all made sense. Yes, she thought, pausing a moment to feel a gust of air shiver her skin. This is why I am here.
Despite the cold air blowing in from the open window, she felt warm sitting there, happy and light. There is a world out there to paint. Not what one sees or even names. Snow on asphalt. Darkened buildings. Sorrow. Joy. An empty cup. What are those? Nothing, really, in and of themselves. Just snow, stone or brick, emptiness, wholeness, a curved slab of porcelain. It’s the spaces in between that spark life and give it definition. What can be deemed spirit is simply this. Tension. It was nearly dawn. She was cold now and dressed carefully so she would not wake Hank, who had thrown off the covers in his sleep and lay sprawled across the rumpled bottom sheet. Ripping her drawing off the pad, she rolled it up, stuffed it into her coat pocket and slid out the door. Tess was asleep when Liza returned to the apartment they shared on 13th Street. Carefully closing the bedroom door, which Tess had left ajar, Liza stripped off her scarf and coat and kicked off her boots, leaving them dripping in the hallway. She had almost skipped her way home in the snow, feeling as alive as she had ever felt. It had to be more than sex with Hank or difficult art concepts finally making sense. Maybe it was everything—New York. Her love of painting, working with the most talked-about art teacher in the city, the promise of it all.
Whatever it was, she wanted to capture it in paint, for she knew such ecstasy was fleeting. If she could lay it down on canvas, make a dance out of color and form, she would have it as a map to find her way back into, so that she could hold this moment forever.
A large canvas was tacked to the wall in the living room where Liza worked. Across the room was a spacious window that looked uptown. The sky had lightened and was coming alive with the colors of dawn: frosty reds and yellows and—Liza looked carefully again at the sky to be sure—hints of green, yes, green. Squeezing out colors onto her palette, she began to paint, letting her body guide her quickly before the sky’s brilliance burned itself out, spread and faded into a flat sheet of blue.
Looking back, Liza would remember the painting as an effortless process, something that took minutes to execute. She’d recall the idea, the drama of the sky, the energy that fueled her work. Later, sitting across from the wet canvas on the couch, she studied the painting as though she were looking for the first time at someone else’s creation. She closed her eyes to clear her head. She was awed; everything about it was perfect. She did not hear Tess come out the bedroom, didn’t realize that she stood in the doorway for several minutes without making a sound, transfixed as well. Finally, Tess found her breath as she moved closer.
“This is incredible,” her voice trembling at first. “Exquisite! Is this what you stayed up all night doing?”
Liza smiled and nodded. It had to have taken hours. How else could she explain?
When the painting was dry, Liza rolled it up and brought it to class. It was a day of critiques. She attached the canvas to a wall and waited. Hofmann began with another student’s work, speaking loudly much of the time, probably because he could not hear well. Often he reverted to German because his English was poor. “What did he say?” was a common question among students. But they always knew what he felt.
Just as Liza did when he finally approached. Watching him study her painting, she saw his shoulders slack, the ruddy skin of his face soften, and she knew. Even so, she almost fell over when he finally spoke. “This is so good. You wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.”