Remembering Grandma: Art, Abuse and a Fraught Legacy

Touching the Art is part memoir, part social history, part political analysis. It’s also a highly personal and often painful account of abuse, neglect and denial.

Eleanor J. Bader Apr 4

When Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore was a child, every visit to see her paternal grandparents was filled with affirmation, joy and wonder. Her grandmother, visual artist Gladys Goldstein, was particularly encouraging. She helped nurture Sycamore’s burgeoning creativity and envision a way to  break free of suburban expectations. 

Her example was potent.

A Baltimore-based artist, Goldstein (1917–2010) was a bold, creative rule-breaker, but thanks to misogyny, she never gained the prominence of the male artists of her generation — Richard Diebenkorn, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, among them. Nonetheless, her work is in several permanent museum collections, and Sycamore prizes the many collages and paintings that now fill her Seattle apartment. 

But Touching the Art is not just a loving tribute to a largely-forgotten talent. The book is also a chronicle of Goldstein’s less laudable qualities, documenting her ability to be cruel, dismissive, demeaning, and racially and socially insensitive. 

Indeed, Sycamore describes her grandmother as a “class striver,” a woman who was comfortable relying on her husband’s income to support her career and would eventually leave Sycamore enough cash to enable her to forgo a day job in favor of writing. Needless to say, this makes for a fraught legacy.

Touching the Art is not just a loving tribute to a largely-forgotten talent; it is also a chronicle of Goldstein’s less laudable qualities.

On one hand, Goldstein was quick to pan Sycamore’s first book, 2005’s Pulled Taffy, as “vulgar” and “a waste of talent.” She was also quick to deny that the paternal sexual abuse that Sycamore revealed had actually happened. Not possible, she claimed, for her son the doctor to have done such a dastardly thing to his child.

But there was also a second hand — Sycamore can’t deny that Goldstein taught her to appreciate color, light and art itself. Perhaps most importantly, she taught her that it was okay to be different. 

“When I was a child,” Sycamore writes, “Gladys offered me the tools to imagine myself outside of normalcy. And yet, once I came into my own self, she wanted to put me back in that stifling space.” 

It was a complicated, and often contradictory relationship.

Touching the Art does not shy away from the disaffirmations that impacted their connection. The account is both an homage to a passionate artist and a searing look into the ways that each of us is influenced by the environment — social, political, religious and ethical — in which we come of age. What’s more, it’s a highly-emotional read, full of love, fury and irreverence.

Part memoir, part social history, part political analysis, and part queer theory, Touching the Art tells a compelling and evocative story. Sycamore, an award-winning author and editor, has given readers a nuanced look back, full of insights and revelations. It’s also a highly personal, often-painful, account of abuse and denial. 

Still, Goldstein’s influence on Sycamore is undeniable and worthy of cautious praise. “You can’t copy anybody and end up with anything,” she told Sycamore. “If you copy, it means you’re working without feeling. And without feeling, whatever you do amounts to nothing.”

It was a lesson, Sycamore writes, that saved her life.

Touching the Art
By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Soft Skull Press; Nov. 2023
304 pages

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