In the winter of 1972, our entire family went to Rome with a client named Basil so my father could take care of a small legal task for him. Basil was a marijuana dealer, and my father was a criminal-defense attorney, but the legal matter was commercial and took only a few days. Then we drove around the country looking at artistic treasures, which my mother believed essential to our development. “A truly educated person needs to spend an afternoon standing in front of a Titian as the light changes,” she told me. “He needs to feel the Sistine Chapel floating over his head.” 

My mother had wanted to become an English professor, but her parents pushed her into law school, which she loathed. After marrying my ­father, she quit the law and devoted herself to a strenuous regimen of culture—museums, theater, classical music—everything she saw as defining the larger world beyond her native Brooklyn. 

Brooklyn was parochial, she told us, claustrophobic, terminally stupid. “Just look at your father’s family,” she said. “They all live together on that one little dead-end street, clustered together as if in a shtetl. They never go to Manhattan. They don’t read books. And they don’t like it when anyone else does either.” 

We were going to be different, but I remember walking with her into the Uffizi in Florence, seeing the walls covered from top to bottom in dark old paintings in gilt frames, and feeling my heart sink with fear: it was just way, way too much. I was ten years old. My brother, David, who was nine, and my sister, Perrin, who was four, had gone with my father in search of a café, and part of me wished I were with them, eating cannoli.

“Isn’t this incredible?” my mother whispered. “We’re in one of the greatest museums in the world. And we’re going to see absolutely everything.”

I never said no to her, because I was afraid of her disappointment: a flicker of her eye, a look of judgment and then boredom. Back in New York, we went to the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney to see Pollocks and Motherwells, huge paintings that seemed to vibrate against the massive white walls. I’d already decided that I wanted to become an artist, but what I really wanted, on some unconscious level, was to become a painting so my mother could look at me with the same beautifully intense expression she had when we stood in front of a Rothko or a de Kooning: rapt, open, wondering.