I remember the first time the earth moved for me at a museum. My culture-deprived, aspirational mother dragged me once a month from our northern suburb—where the word art never came up—to the Art Institute of Chicago. I hated it. Art seemed so old and boring and not baseball. Then one day, when I was about 9, we stumbled on a couple of small paintings. In the canvas on the left, a man’s head was stuck between the bars of a jail cell; a soldier outside the cell was raising an ax in the air. In the painting on the right, blood was spurting from the same man’s neck, and the soldier’s ax was at his side. Of course the blood and guts were cool. But something else happened. It suddenly dawned on me that these paintings were telling a story. To this day, the work that moves me most—that sweeps me up, even to the point of rapture—vibrates with that sense of storytelling. (The artist, I later learned, was fifteenth-century Italian master Giovanni di Paulo. You can find his sublime The Creation of the World and the Expulsion From Paradise at the Met.)
Summer is a great time to visit art museums, which offer the refreshing rinse of swimming pools—only instead of cool water, you immerse yourself in art. To remind myself of my favorite Western paintings in New York (my criterion for this list), I spent a month dipping in and out of our city’s museums, like the character in John Cheever’s classic short story “The Swimmer,” who swam across the pools of Westchester County one hot summer day. Think of me as your Sister Wendy in swimming trunks.
• Henri Matisse
Goldfish and Palette (1914)
In this staggering aesthetic shot over Cubism’s bow, Matisse turns his guns on Picasso and Paris, a city then enamored with the brilliant, quixotic Spaniard. Complicating the faceted flat space of Cubism, transforming black into light, conjuring blues that hadn’t been harnessed since Giotto, Matisse returns fire—and for me wins the war.
• Joan Miró
The Birth of the World (1925)
The first time I saw this smudged abstraction, I wasn’t sure if it was art. I eventually gleaned that Miró’s rickety lines, quasi-crawling baby trapezoid, blurs, blots, and pools of paint are what they are, but they are also about mark-making, process, chance, and control. Abstraction, as it turns out, is among the greatest tools invented by human beings to envision the chaos of the universe.
• Jackson Pollock
Room of eight paintings
Looking at these canvases (including One: Number 31, 1950, at right), installed chronologically, reminds me that few artists were less naturally talented than Pollock. That he virtually willed himself to newness, deploying something that had been there since the caves—the drip—then went in search of something else that killed him, makes this a monument to the bravery of creation.
Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair (1940)
That Kahlo has become kitsch (much like the equally groundbreaking O’Keeffe) is one of the great shames of modern art. Can you argue with the audacity and fervid emotion of this canvas, which shows the artist in drag, her hair shorn, wearing what looks to be the clothing of her philandering painter husband, Diego Rivera? It’s painting as magic talisman, evil eye, and self-flagellation.