(Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
I might as well be upfront about it: this review is a freak of nature. It happened to me. I didn't plan it. I didn't go with notebook in hand to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My wife and I planned to visit the Louis Comfort Tiffany show, and then, if time permitted, the "Cézanne to Picasso" exhibit of works associated with the art patron/dealer Ambroise Vollard. After that, we were to have dinner at the home of friends who live near Lincoln Center. We were supposed to get there at six. My wife made it. I almost didn't. Here's how it came about.
Since we were going north of 23rd Street on a Grid-Lock Alert Friday, and since the train involved some problems about timing and parking, we took the bus into Manhattan and got in at 3:20. Plenty of time, you'd think, for our visit to the Met. Going up Eighth Avenue in the cab, we were craning our necks to see the tower built on top of the elegant old Hearst Building by Lord Norman Foster, "the Mozart of modernism," according to Paul Goldberger. From what I could see, the zig-zag design had more in common with the playful spirit of Thelonious Monk. Heading up Central Park West, we passed 63rd Street, where Monk once lived and made records, and then the Dakota (thinking of John Lennon), and then the El Dorado Towers, where Stephen Sondheim grew up.
Dazzled by Tiffany
We'd come mainly for the Tiffany, which was amazing. Even if I'd had something to write on, I wouldn't have wanted to make notes. The intensity of the colors in the stained glass and enamel mosaics all but eclipsed the scenes and objects they were meant to represent; images clearly modeled on scenes in nature seemed to run free in an abstract swarm. Some women were pointing at everything and going "Gorgeous!" "Gorgeous!" They were right. I came out of it dazed and dazzled. My wife was in the gift shop; she said she'd come find me in the Cézanne to Picasso show. She never found me. I was lost as soon I stepped outside and saw the Van Gogh in the gallery across the hall.
It's not fair to blame Tiffany for the strange turn the afternoon took at this point. I might as well blame the city a cab ride through New York on an Indian Summer day can make you high. But it was Van Gogh who lured me out of the world of time, place, other exhibits, and dinner engagements.
The first time an art exhibit ever wrenched me out of everyday reality was at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam when I was 19. The other works of art I'd seen at that point in my life had stayed on the canvas; they hadn't moved around the way the Van Goghs did. It seemed as if he were painting as I watched, or as if he'd just been there; you could smell the smoke from his pipe. Impossible to believe he'd done it all with a mere brush. He must have been squeezing the paint between his fingers and then slapping it on in layers.
The painting that led me astray at the Met was Cypresses, from 1889. Whatever the Tiffany colors had done to my eyes, it was nothing next to Van Gogh's painted outburst. The painting I was gaping at was as far from "gorgeous" as a scream or a storm, though I didn't learn until I read the note that it had been painted soon after Van Gogh began his year-long confinement at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and that he'd seen it as "a splash of black in a sunny landscape." Whatever it was he'd gone after, he'd found it.
I was locked in, staring, transfixed, forgetful of the hour and the fact that someone pushing someone in a wheelchair was trying to get around me. The first shock had come with the central image, the raving, raging cypresses, but what held me was the blue and white of the sky. The blue Van Gogh had found for his sky was not of this world. Or if it was, it was the primal shade of blue you can see when you're four or five and may never see so well again. When I started following, or trying to follow, the thickly clustered flow of the white clouds, I had another Amsterdam moment: the paint seemed to be alive. The sheer density of whiteness also began to remind me of the way Blake painted clouds into the bodies of angels.
The spell was finally broken when I had to make way for that wheelchair and almost bumped into a father with his baby riding in a sling around his neck, facing forward; the father was standing in front of a Van Gogh self-portrait but he wasn't seeing it; the baby was; the baby was fascinated, eye to eye with the artist, really seeing it, and the father had no idea that his infant child was communing with Van Gogh. As I was observing this little gallery scene, I realized that a pretty, fair-haired, rosy-cheeked museum guide with the face of a Renoir bather was smiling at me the way I'd been smiling at the baby. She'd obviously been amusing herself watching me in my cypress trance.
In another room, much later, I finally thought to look at my watch. It was already 5:30! Where was my wife? She was supposed to be looking for me. I walked back through the galleries frantically and futilely searching for her as it slowly dawned on me that this could not be the exhibit we'd planned to meet in. True, it had Cézanne, and Picasso, but it didn't have that carefully organized, polished, curatorial lustre, not with the bare spaces on the walls where this or that painting had been removed; not with the information placards propped casually to one side instead of being posted. And where were all the people with their headsets murmuring commentary? Yes, folks, I'd wandered off the trail, lost without knowing it, at sea in the permanent collection. By the time I got to the real exhibit, it was almost six. My wife had gone off to our dinner engagement without me.
Before I left, I noticed a group of people gazing at one painting. A night scene. A magical scene. A Van Gogh I'd never seen before. So much for thinking his work could never be gorgeous. That's not the word I'd have chosen, but it at least began to come close.
Panic had set in by then. I couldn't find the phone number of our dinner hosts. I knew roughly where they lived but not their street number or apartment number. It took me ten minutes to find my way downstairs, where I went astray trying to find a phone booth, hoping to call information. Looking for the main entrance, I took a wrong turn and ended up in front of a giant Christmas tree behind which live Christmas music was playing, taking me back to my first moment ever in New York, a Christmas visit, age ten, gazing in awe in the great rotunda of Grand Central Station while a woman sang Christmas carols from the balcony. I finally found my way out, caught a taxi to Columbus Circle, and was only 40 minutes late. My wife was disposed to forgive me when I told her what had happened, and I was thinking, "At least now I've got something to write about for next week."
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