Eye of the Beholder


Arts & Culture

Alice Mattison reckons with the impacts of macular degeneration …

Rembrandt, self-portrait, 1660 (modified)

My mother thought children should visit museums, and back in the fifties, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was free. The Egyptian tomb was satisfyingly frightening if I pretended it was large enough to get lost in; a knight on a horse pointed a huge lance straight at me. I didn’t exactly get interested in art, but I picked up the notion that looking at it is something people do, something I could do. When I was old enough to take the subway from Brooklyn by myself, I went to museums alone. They were conducive to fantasy life. Or I went with friends. We knew museums had a snobbish distinction. I liked being someone who didn’t travel to Manhattan only to shop.

As a college student, I continued to live with my parents and sister in an apartment not big enough for everyone’s opinions. In museums, I could think alone in a warm place. I found the Frick Collection, also free. Soon my friends and I owned that imposing nineteenth-century mansion, and were annoyed when a painting was moved. We once walked through with our backs to the art, holding up the hand mirror I used to put on lipstick. We wanted to see how the paintings looked when seen backward. Not as good.

At the Met, we went straight to the second floor and the Dutch painters. Rembrandt and Vermeer were our favorites as soon as we gave the question a thought. Vermeer’s woman in a starched white bonnet opened a small casement window with one elegant hand, while the other grasped a sloping metal pitcher that gleamed with meaning.

In a self-portrait, Rembrandt’s round dark eyes looked unflinchingly out of the canvas. He was considering his flawed self, I imagined, or the tragic nature of life, with its heartache and trouble. My parents would have urged me to look away. They talked in whispers about sorrow, or they spoke in Yiddish, which I didn’t understand. I wanted to face whatever the painter faced.

During my senior year in college, a collector offered Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, and we lined up at the auction house to see it, afraid it would leave New York. In a loose robe, looking like a Renaissance man instead of an ancient one, dignified Aristotle rests a hand on Homer’s bald marble head. His expression is intense but private. The Met bought the painting, and we got in line again to see it there. It’s still on display. The Met is more crowded now, but once you’re inside you no longer have to stand in line to see Aristotle think.

By then I knew that when you can, you go and look at paintings. Art I like makes my belly relax. It slows my breathing. I look at it and my brain sizzles. I get ideas for whatever I’m writing. Sometimes I don’t like anything and I wonder why I bother—why I’ve bothered all my life. Then something I hadn’t noticed socks me in the stomach.


When I was forty-one, a genetic disease caused the center of my right retina—the macula—to atrophy; I began to see a gap if my left eye was closed. If you sat across a table from me, I could see your hair, but a blur replaced your face. Open, that good left eye made up fairly well for what my right eye could no longer see; as disasters went, this one was minor, though it didn’t seem so at the time. Life continued with some trouble. I needed increased magnification to read. I often wore sunglasses, since light had become uncomfortably bright. At the Frick, the paintings were slightly less thrilling.

I didn’t stop visiting museums and galleries, but as time passed, my taste ran more to abstract art. Swaths and splotches of color balance one another in surprising ways. Precision and detail, it turns out, aren’t the only tools for conveying emotional depth. If you can’t see a De Kooning or a Frankenthaler perfectly, you don’t know what you’re missing.

But as I aged, my eyes continued changing. The gap gradually grew larger. These days, closing my left eye removes your head and shoulders, and lately there’s also a small gap in the vision of my good eye. With both my eyes open, I can no longer see your left eye when I look at your nose. There are other changes. A few years ago, colors in a Vermeer looked different from the way I remembered them. Since then, he’s out.

The gaps in my vision aren’t ugly or dramatic—no black blobs, just gray places, or areas where detail is gone and the background color remains. It’s a gentle, if relentless, deprivation. When both my eyes are open, your face looks about the way it might if my eyes were fine but you were partly in shadow. Seeing only part of something, after all, is ordinary, especially in a house, where sunlight may illuminate only part of an object, or the corner of a room is dim because the lamp doesn’t fit on the table, or a carpet lies in the shadow of the staircase.

I still visit museums, but carefully. At the Met a few months ago, my husband and I chose exhibits of three-dimensional art (Korean ceramics, African sculpture) and abstract art. But I knew he wanted to see the seventeenth-century Dutch masters—his old favorites, too. When we were almost out of time, I suggested we look at them briefly. We climbed the big staircase. Once more I stood before Rembrandt’s self-portrait from 1660. Now his round sober face, staring out of a dark background, had a blur where his left eye should have been, as if the painting were damaged.

I cried on the coat check line. This was different from not seeing a small pitcher on a shelf at home. The museum had taken care that the Rembrandt self-portrait wasn’t mottled by uneven lighting or partly hidden by a piece of furniture; it wasn’t at just the wrong spot near a window. The gap I saw, the vaguely gray splotch where his left eye should have been, was obscene, a violation, an enormity.


A piece of art I found in my middle age is Sphere with Inner Form, by the twentieth-century British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. I live a mile away and that museum is still free; running in just to take a look is easy. A hollow bronze sphere, about a yard in diameter, sits on a plain pedestal: dark, thick metal with an irregular surface. Three boldly cut sections are missing. Inside the sphere is a curved shape. This description makes me think of a womb with a fetus in it, but I’ve never had that thought when looking at the piece. Part of the delight of abstract art is that it doesn’t look like anything: it just expresses the excitement of wholeness and interruption, texture and line, outside and inside. I look through an opening past the shape inside and out another opening. Then I walk around the sphere and look from a different perspective. There is no way to see it all at once, and this piece can’t be displayed incorrectly, though I was irked when the gallery put it in the basement for a while, instead of in its usual spot in the big airy entrance hall of the center, which was designed by Louis Kahn. Still, its placement didn’t prevent my usual jolt when I looked at it. Blind people could get a good sense of Sphere with Inner Form by touching it, and it’s only because I am rule-abiding that I don’t stroke the tempting bronze, which preserves the scrapes and gouges made in the mold into which the liquid was poured. In an interview, Hepworth said, “I think every sculpture must be touched,” but Yale might take a different view. In another interview, speaking of some outdoor pieces, Hepworth said, “It’s lovely to live with the sculpture, because it changes in every possible light, all through the day—moonlight, artificial light, any light.” Maybe there are two kinds of art: the kind that is best seen as clearly as possible, straight on, with good eyes, and the kind for which beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whatever that eye can see.

A few years after my eye trouble started, someone urged me to look at a painting by Agnes Martin. I might, otherwise, have walked straight past it. She drew grids in pencil and painted a wash of light color over them. Though they are intensely emotional, Martin’s paintings are not entirely different from graph paper. Macular patients know all about grids. We are sometimes asked to look, with each eye in turn, at an Amsler grid: a crossword-puzzle pattern without black squares but with a dot in the middle. “Can you see the dot?” we’re asked. “Are any of the lines distorted or missing?” Amsler grids look messy to me, so you’d think I’d be unlikely to appreciate Agnes Martin, but from the time I saw that first painting, more than twenty years ago, I’ve wanted to see her work.  A big show came to the Guggenheim in New York in 2016, just when I was starting to see a blank spot with both eyes open. I was nervous, but I went.

The first few paintings were upsetting: on Martin’s grids I saw the gaps and distortions I would see on an Amsler grid. But then I understood that there is no wrong way to see these paintings. After that, each one looked exactly right, gaps and all: that was how it was supposed to look. Martin was fascinated by individual perception. On a website that the Guggenheim created to go with the show are recordings in which she urges young artists to be aware of what they want, attentive to their own nature. “Say you went blind,” she says, in a quote from a lecture. She interrupts herself—“Very depressing!”—but continues, “You would still have a very exciting emotional life.”

Perception is inevitably personal, but not all art looks good in all conditions, or to all eyes. We may enjoy art even if the light is dim or the work is awkwardly exhibited, even if we don’t see well. But it’s hard to imagine anyone preferring to see the Rembrandt self-portrait in conditions very different from those at the Met, with its clear sight lines and even lighting.

I don’t like thinking of my eye trouble as a catastrophe; it’s merely a fact about me, an oddity, often made harmless by a simple remedy: kitchen utensils in various colors, a mug with a white interior so I know how much coffee I’ve poured. Like my doctors, I acknowledge with a moderately sad nod any vision problem that isn’t new. Ah yes, there it is: last week’s or last year’s bad news. Now and then, however, the foolishness of that blithe denial becomes apparent. Loss feels like loss. Rembrandt doesn’t look away from the truth. Not seeing all of his face at once—or all of yours—is unbearable, at least for the moment. I should cry more often.


Alice Mattison is the author of stories and essays that have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the New York Times. Her work has received the PEN/O. Henry Prize and the Pushcart Prize and been anthologized in the Best American series. Her New York Times Notable novels and collections include Men Giving Money, Women Yelling and The Book Borrower. Her latest novel is Conscience.