September 03, 2006

Birds . . . in . . . SPACE!

I had the day off last Friday, and seeing how I was sick of staring at the poster of Kafka above my couch, when my friend Lisa proposed we do something, I suggested museums. She's a painter, and I'm a writer, and I figured we could both use some inspiration.

Full disclosure: Lisa and I went to the prom together in our senior year of high school. As friends. She was the first friend I came out to. Talking about the particular intricate details of her life right now would violate a billion codes of friendship loyalty and so I'll just say that we've always gotten along fantastically and have become big-picture friends over the past twenty years.

twenty years ago!
Of course the first thing she says to me as I approach her outside the entrance to MoMA is, "You've gained so much weight!" Now actually, I've lost some weight since I last saw her, but there were other things going on at that party and she hadn't noticed my inflation. I used to be very skinny, painfully so, particularly back in high school when I hated the logy feeling of being full. So Lisa still thinks of me as that skeletal twink I was.

"Did you just tell me I'm fat?" I asked as I hugged her. "You just told me I'm fat."

"It's just your face, really," she replies as we go in to the museum. "You've got chubby cheeks now!"

"I thought I looked cute today," I sigh. I gained twenty pounds after quitting smoking, and I've lost five pounds of that since I started working out, but you can still see the weight in my face and I'm afraid the changes to my physiognomy are permanent. "My mother says --" and I put on my mother's strange Bronx Italian meets Houston accent -- "Oh . . . you're getting a MAN'S BODY now . . ."

Which Lisa and I both think is funny because we know my mother and her particular brand of cheerfully inappropriate impertinence. And really, it's about time I'm looking older at all at 36.

spinning on that dizzy edge
I hadn't been to MoMA since it was renovated and expanded, even though it's been a couple of years and I work a few blocks away. The new design is spacious but low-key and mostly unobtrusive except when it becomes vertiginous along the edges of the multilevel atria. There seems still to be quite a bit of blank space that MoMA could use more judiciously -- they must have thousands of amazing paintings in storage that could enliven the empty stairwells, for example.

We look at photographs and European tourist guys for awhile . . . so many hot Euroyummies with their elfin bodies, smooth complexions, and goofy hair . . . and Lisa and I catch up on our lives in telegraphic sound bites while bouncing from picture to picture. We make it through to the permanent collection -- although some cute, gay Asian guy has the same FCUK shirt on as I do (we wave embarrassedly to each other on the escalator) -- and then we're surrounded by all those old friends: Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Magritte, Miro, Van Gogh, and as always, merely being in their presences elevates the tenor of being, feeling the vibrating thrum of gorgeous objects, beautiful things, resonating with bravery and history, skill and talent, place, person, persona, and time. Lisa is a Leo, and when I'm around her, I'm once again encouraged to believe in the power of art earnestly and express how it moves me without embarrassment.

good kitty
Among the beauties that struck me anew on this visit was Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy, which, as I explained to Lisa in part, I've adored since childhood because of how worried it makes me feel. The idea of something dangerous and bestial approaching while I'm lost in vulnerable sleep makes me deeply anxious, even if the lion looks peaceful and benign in that moment. I've always loved the oddly two-dimensional perspective of the painting, too, which along with its cartoony generalization of true physical form, gives it an approximated, overview simplification of reality that I associate with dreams, which makes perfect sense if you're trying to evoke a basic, primal reaction. Lovely. It makes me wish Rousseau was alive today so I could get him to illustrate a children's book for me. How beautiful would that be, the continuation of this gypsy's story in this glowing desert?

yeah, she was a big girl, sir
As we wandered on, I told Lisa about my experience with a Picasso while in the National Gallery that spring -- that one of the blue paintings (The Tragedy) had suddenly struck me with a smack of unadulterated loneliness and I had teared up, overwhelmed with sadness. I was kind of hoping for that kind of emotional reaction with another of Picasso's blue period works at the MoMA, but none walloped me particularly. So I mentioned my old standby of how much I like the chunky thumbs in Three Women at the Spring. We make fun of Picasso's rendering of these women in clumsy, claylike forms for a bit ("the breasts are in the wrong place!") until I realize how chunky, clumsy, lumpen, and claylike I feel most of the time . . . except for my nose, which is as sharp an angle as ever, just like theirs.

Lisa and I both disagreed with the placement of a dozen sharp-angled sculptures on a single dais in the middle of one room. Their effect as individual objects was stunted surrounded by so much similarity. Also, the dais was walled on one end, which prevented an onlooker from circling the statues properly. It's difficult not to smile when I see Brancusi's Bird in Space, though. I love that sculpture for its sleek evocation of action, but the smile is really because I always think of the old skit from The Muppet Show: Pigs . . . in . . . SPACE! I tell this to Lisa and she asks me when I'm ever going to grow up, which is a fair question.

Bird . . . in . . . SPACE!

Ah, I crack myself up.

hold still!
Lisa goes to the ladies' room while I wait by the escalator and I idly look at cute guys and shuffle over to stand in front of Georgia O'Keeffe's Lake George Window hanging in the hallway. I'm still looking at it, bouncing off the oddly reverberating off-kilter shapes, when Lisa comes back from the bathroom. We admire just how much energy can be created by having right angles seem slightly askew, how it makes the painting appear abstract even though its perfectly representative, even precise. It's a Lake George window, no question, but the imperfect offset makes it look as conceptual as a Klee or Mondrian. Cool.

The next small hall has a couple of Hoppers, across from Wyeth's Christina's World. There's an indifferent painting by a forgettable American artist at the end of the hall, the placement of which annoys Lisa because, although it fits tonally with the Hoppers and Wyeth, cannot stand up in quality. But then what could? Personally, I think you'd have to hang Grant Wood's American Gothic there to complete the effect of . . . um . . . the American gothic countenance of the art in the room.

damn, I'd tap that
We spend the most time on Hopper's Night Windows, trying to puzzle out its story. It's sort of cheerfully bright in that painted room (or rooms), but kind of dismally simple for all that -- just a bed, an exposed radiator, and a green carpet. The woman's big pink ass is solid and inviting, even comfortable, but what is she leaning over to do? Picking up something, blowing somebody, barfing, putting out a fire, what? What IS that horrible orangey-red glow in that right window? A fire? Hell? Sickly light is emanating from it. Does that make the window on the left, with its breezy white curtain, Heaven? And our plump ass is in the middle, leaning over to tinker with hellfire? All very mysterious, and so simply executed, with solid, sincere rendering that feels accurate. I've lived in New York most of my life, and I've seen fragments of people moving about in distant apartments or offices thousands of times, and eventually you give up ascribing importance to their actions because you simply cannot suss out their intentions from the splinters of narrative you glimpse. What is that orange glow? It's horribly disconcerting.

you go, girl!
We turn and sidle our way through the crown in front of Christina's World and as usual, I have to suppress the horrified giggle it provokes. This has to be the most dramatic of all American paintings, impeccably realistic down to the chaff on the grain, almost campy in its theatrical, overwhelming staging. The fact that it's a representation of a real woman, a dramatization of her stubbornness, tenacity, strength, and tragedy, saves it from being ridiculous, and renders it earnestly gothic instead of camp. Also -- and I'm not sure of the boundary here -- but its skill and technical wonder protect it from pretentious bathos. Look at the detail of the wind in the grain, the cords of tendons in Christina's blue, straining wrists, the way the black crows swarming from the barn are echoed in her hair and again by the dark cloth on the clothesline.

Lisa just grimaces at it and I understand suddenly that she doesn't know Christina's story, which my mother told me when I was little, and which I just checked and was pleasantly surprised to discover my mother actually had gotten mostly correct. When I tell Lisa the story, briefly outlined, her appreciation for the painting obviously grows. Funny, that, how people are always interested in the story -- the story of the subject and/or the artist, either -- and how much I struggled against close textual readings when I was in graduate school. Yeah, I can analyze art on its own merits as a freestanding object in place and time, but I so much prefer to associate it also with its gorgeous gossip.

pretty in pink
We sat down and rested for a bit in a room filled with Piet Mondrian paintings, circling the room from his early representational work to the later, gorgeous geometric shapes, and you can watch him earning the right, the confidence, to simplify step by step into basic lines and primary colors. It's an amazing progression, like a peeling back of layers of complications to arrive at something fundamental and pure, something elemental. Meanwhile, I stared the longest at a pretty pastel one called Tableau No. 2, which seems to focus in the middle like a thought, or like energy fleshing into matter.

On the top floor, we buzzed briefly through the DADA exhibit -- Lisa had seen it before at MoMA, and I'd seen it at the National Gallery -- and basically it looked like a pile of junk tacked up everywhere. I chatted for a bit with a security guard who I used to smoke with when we both worked at Scholastic. He was happy to see me, dismissive of the crowd, and mocking of the exhibit: "I think they just threw in some garbage that has nothing to do with anything, just stuff they found." And then set it a-spinning.

me and the shredded giantess
Lisa and I were both getting hungry, and we decided to make it over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and go to the cafeteria there (and planning to go to the Met's roof garden afterward and get a drink). Which is what we did -- we walked toward the 6 train at the Citicorp building. On the way, we passed Lever House, a beautiful old building -- one of the first curtain wall skyscrapers in New York -- and in the courtyard I was surprised to see a giant pregnant woman, peeled.
This is the Damian Hirst sculpture Virgin Mother, and it's an interesting monstrosity. At first glance, it's big and vulgar. The woman's nipples are very prominent and a different color than her skin, and you can see her pussy cleft. Plus, half her right side has been flayed, showing her skull, muscles, and gravid womb. It's a comment on art (the statue is . . . um, inspired by . . . the Degas sculpture The Little Dancer) and appropriateness (it's inappropriate in a public square), and it's a mother-goddess fertility deal, and it's medical, and violent, and as oddly feminist as misogynistic.
peeled like a grape

Also, its placement in the mirrored Lever House courtyard reflects it from every angle, like a changing room mirror. It's impressive, brave, and difficult, and it has big feet.

When we got to the Met, we asked directions to the cafeteria and headed there immediately, zipping through the Renaissance art and mainly ignoring it. We ate some unfortunately cold food in the grim cafeteria -- I had remembered it from my childhood as being much nicer with white marble and having good Jell-O -- and then headed up to the roof garden.
killed it myself
The day was slightly drizzly and overcast, but the view over the tops of the trees in Central Park, with the balustrade of tan brick buildings along the periphery and midtown to the South, was as spectacular as ever. We drank expensive pink blush wine as we talked about our future plans and mocked the other people in the garden and made faces at the bristly alligator sculptures near us (called, collectively, Move Along, Nothing to See Here, by a Chinese artist named Cai Guo-Qiang).

After the drink, we figured we might as well check out the Lila Acheson Wallace wing and see how the Met's modern collection compares with MoMA's. Unfortunately, the downstairs atrium area where the most contemporary works are shown was closed, so we didn't linger in the modern wing. For the second time, though, we saw (altogether now) . . .

Bird . . . in . . . SPACE!

My goodness, that never gets old.

I did purchase a book on Hopper while waiting for Lisa to come out of the bathroom.

We wandered for awhile, enjoying Rothko, more Picasso, more O'Keeffe, more Van Gogh . . . the Met has so many rooms, and our feet hurt, and it all blurs together after a bit. We ended up in a bright hallway where one of my favorite paintings in the Met is hung -- a big canvas (100" x 110") called Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage. This painting has made me cry on several occasions. In a pretty, rambling pastoral setting, Joan is getting news by a visitation of saints -- that she has been chosen to lead the French army (and perhaps letting her know that she'll die horribly, given the unpleasant reactions of the saints). It's the look on Joan's face that gets me, though . . . it's filled with wonder and fear and shock and pride and awe and longing.
lead an army and then get burned at the stake? um . . .
She's accepting the task given to her, amazed by being called to do something so unusual and important. Right then, although I was struck by the painting's power and beauty, my work, career, and writing issues were in rather a dormant state and the call to arms didn't affect me as strongly as usual. (I always think of the Blues Brothers: we're on a mission from God.)

We turned around and confronted a couple of Rodin sculputures. He's a huge favorite of mine, for a few reasons: 1. he's an amazing, primal sculptor; 2. his sculptures of men are intensely sexy, muscular and well-hung (or hung at all, given the pathetic state of penises on European sculptures between Michelangelo (died 1564) and Rodin (died 1917)); 3. he was the subject of the first adult biography I read, Naked Came I, which is an incredible book by David Weiss; and 4. he and I have the same birthdate, November 12. The study of Adam there was as hot as ever, and the Balzac was as bizarre as ever.

don't go!
Then we peered at Rodin's small Cupid and Psyche sculpture, which is just beautiful and heartbreaking. I started to explain to Lisa the story, that Psyche wasn't allowed to see Cupid (the secret god she married) and they always had wonderful sex in the dark, but then someone convinced Psyche to turn on the lamp and look at Cupid while he was sleeping, but she burned him accidentally and woke him and he was furious and left her forever. In the sculpture, she's clinging to him so desperately and while I was telling the story my voice broke and I had to swallow and take a moment to keep from crying.

Jeez -- I just welled up again writing that. Man, that hallway in the Metropolitan showed me where my current issues lie. Not in career or calling. In love. I haven't felt desperate, clingy love like that in years. It hurts so much and becomes the stuff of personal legend. It's sick to crave that murderous drama, that jealous intensity. God, this sculpture, that story behind it. I don't want to think about the repercussions of my interest in what it represents, what that says about me. I think I may just leave those feelings and revelations in iconic statue form and let it speak for me.

We wandered on, asking guards where the Vermeers were and getting lost again looking for them and asking again. They were vaguely disappointing after the long day, and didn't look like I remembered them while I watched Girl with a Pearl Earring. I hope that Scarlett Johanssen hasn't permanently co-opted or corrupted my enjoyment of the original Vermeers.

layers of history
On our way out, we passed a cordoned-off area that was undergoing renovation. Something about seeing the palimpsest of the very walls of the Met was in itself moving. I took this picture with my camera phone.

kill! kill! kill!
I saw a Goya called Don Manuel Osorio de Zuñiga on the way out that caught my attention and since my camera phone was already out, I snapped the hyper-alert eyes of these cats looking at a wren with a particular hungry look that I know well from my own cats. That bird was in big trouble!

Bird . . . in . . . space?


Then we were outside under a plum-colored sky and goodbye to the Met. We walked across the park to the subway, singing Prince songs ("the sky was all purple . . . there were people running everywhere . . . ") and we said goodbye at the subway, where she went uptown and I went downtown. We had made a tentative plan to go to the Cloisters in the coming weeks, but I doubted our orbits would cross again that soon.

oh, you kid!
I got off at my Spring St. stop in SoHo and walked toward my apartment. Across the street from me is an expensive restaurant called Barolo with a gorgeous courtyard walled in a European style. At the beginning of the summer this year, someone painted a mural of four women in bikinis in a flirty, 1940s style. It's very cool and fun and sexy in a goofy way. I was still thinking about art and so I took this picture with my camera phone.

It was a lovely day.

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