My friend Joyce and I figured out a few months ago that we were derelict in our museum-going (you get out of the habit, you know?). One friend I used to go with moved away, one died, a third is too ill. I will go when I’ve got guests in from out-of-town, but there’s no regularity to that. So a few months ago, after I went to the Morgan to see the Fred Ebb Expressionist legacy, Joyce and I decided we would make the effort. We both think it’s good for writers, certainly for the two of us, to see visual art. Clears out your head and re-focuses it, somehow.
We both went to MoMA yesterday, but in the crush of people, we never found each other. I hadn’t been in the new building (sore that the admission went up to $20, and the other big museums followed suite, of course). I certainly went to the old museum a few times a year. I remember sitting with my sister in the sculpture garden, drinking iced tea and laughing at that silly Picasso of a goat. In my twenties, I’d make my visits to Guernica. I temped there, for a few weeks, in the photography department.
Even for a big show (the Richard Serra) I was completely unprepared for the number of people. The ticket line was nothing compared to the line for the checkroom, which was trumped by the line to pick up what was checkroom. There were many people with cameras. In that group, more than a few were interested in taking a photo of a painting they liked, and then rushing onto the next one (there didn’t seem to be a lot of actual “seeing” involved). So the dance to avoid photographers, baby strollers and other patrons got quite complicated.
There were also some characters. One woman in her 60s darted in and out of the Pollack room (completely ignoring a lovely Lee Krasner in the adjoining room), and finally shrieked at her husband, “House paint! He did it with house paint!” And I thanked God that went I went to the Pollack-Krasner house in Amagansett, she was not with me. There was another woman with a little boy, couldn’t have been more than four. He wanted to go back to his friend Tommy’s house for a play date. His mother would pause in front of each painting with an animal in it, like the Cezanne boy leading a horse. Then in a loud voice, so we all could appreciate both what a genius mother she was and how advanced her child was, she’d ask the kid what animal it was. The kid, bless him, would inquire about going back to Tommy’s, or become fascinated with something else in the room.
I did make the re-acquaintance of some of my old MoMA buddies: ”Broadway Boogie Woogie”; Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight”; the Oskar Kokoschka of the seated couple with the huge hands; Jasper Johns’ “American Flag”; Monet’s water lilies; the creepy Joseph Cornell box with the baby doll trapped by tree branches; “Starry Night” (not that I could get anywhere near it); the Matisse dancers in a circle (which you’ll miss if you’re not careful, because it’s been hung on a stairway). I made some new art friends- there was a wall of some great August Sander photographs, mostly old peasant ladies. There’s also a Joan Miro assemblage with a big, stuffed green parrot on top. Some Atgets, but not the reflected Paris shop windows. Some Seurats, but not the circus acrobats. Some mid-career Rothkos, but not the darker, later ones. Half the problem with MoMA is they have so much stuff, there’s no way they can display anything but a fraction of it. No matter how big the building is.
On some level, I hesitate to write anything about visual art because I have no training in it. I haven’t had a studio class since high school, and I did not excel in it. I never had an art history class, per se (though I had history classes with art in it). I bought a copy of Janson’s History of Art in college because that was the text book for the course, and I could never get in the class because majors had to take it. But I’m certainly interested in it, I’ve seen a lot of it and have my painter favorites. I also use art when I’m writing plays, for the emotions and images it conjures up. And when I’m teaching, particularly with students who are not at ease with or in the habit of discussing or expressing emotion, some how they do much better with trying to answer ”how does that reproduction of a piece of art make you feel?” than answering the same questions in regards to their own hearts, or words on a page.