That was in 1951, that summer with the Impressionists in Paris. And when everything started to change again three and a half decades later I found myself once more in museum rooms. And again while lying in bed at night I could walk through such rooms and see everything that was on every wall – mostly in bigger museums this time, but much the same thing as in 1951.
It started one morning when I woke up in my small but light-filled one-bedroom Chelsea apartment with a tall, sweet-faced woman younger than me named Bonnie whom I had met recently in an Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting – which was something I was doing that until now would have seemed hopelessly out of character. I had turned my answering machine off before she arrived. When in the night I heard the mechanical, though not the audio, part of it moving I was convinced it was my brother calling to say my mother was dying and I would have to go to Florida to take charge. Me, who was not ruled by family. There was no such call from my brother, though I knew there might have been. The actual call on the machine was from a guy who, like me not long before, had split with his wife. He was wondering if he could sleep for a time in my living room.
Bonnie and I went up to the Met that morning. She had a Walkman, something new to me, but not to many by the mid-80s. We passed it back and forth in the E and number 6 trains. I knew I would remember her if not the Mozart. From 86th and Lex we walked over to the Metropolitan. “Let’s go up to the Met,” I had said, it seeming a properly romantic move since I would be showing her a crucial part of what I thought of, with at this point perhaps insubstantial evidence, as myself.
I felt better than I had felt for years. I was silently thanking someone or something for the fact that I could have yet another adventure like this in this new time when everything was changing . We walked with arms around each other’s waists, something I knew a lot about from thirty years back but not so much as it got closer to the present. In the museum I was going to show her my favorite paintings. But what I found instead was how very narrow my scope was.
I had always, ever since Paris, gone to museums, though I realized on this morning that it had been five years or more since I had been in a museum or a gallery. And I realized that I had not really been a constant museum goer since my first time in New York when my first New York girlfriend, who wore black tights, had been an action painter. That was at the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties, a few crucial years after my time in the Jeu de Paum, years that had spanned college, the army, and a rapid career in wire service journalism.
I led Bonnie to the Impressionists. I don’t know if she saw I was intensely embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I did not know where the 19th century paintings were hung even though I had told her how important 19th century paintings were to me. I asked a guard, just like an out-of-touch tourist would, and we found the Impressionists. And then we went to see the Rembrandts, since I knew Rembrandt from another teenage summer, one that I had spent in Holland. Then I tried to find the Hoppers. I knew Hopper from when I was 21 and a journalist in Indianapolis and roaming Chicago on weekends. I would look in on the Art Institute – where I became fixated upon “The Night Hawks,” that intense and lonely diner scene in late night light that seemed to say everything I had wanted to say about about loneliness and fragile hope in seedy but alluring towns.
There were no Hoppers on display at the Met in 1986. And I had nothing else to show Bonnie. It did not occur to me to ask what she wanted to see. I was hit hard by the admission to myself that I knew so little, did not know what was meant by the High Middle Ages or the High Renaissance, had no idea of what a Rafael or Fra Angelico or a Donatello would look like, and I did not know their places in time. I loved art, but I did not know what I loved.
A few days later I was walking uptown from a dentist’s office on 57th Street. On the radio while he was filling a cavity there had been bulletins about the space shuttle explosion that had just taken place – the space shuttle that carried an appealing woman who was really a New Hampshire schoolteacher. When I was on Madison nearing 75th street I saw I was passing the Whitney. Rather I saw the Whitney had its own building, and had probably had it since some point in the early sixties when I had last seen it in its old small home, which you entered from the Museum of Modern Art. Now it had this big but gentle reddish modern building that for some reason was new to me. And inside I was suddenly listening to a happy old man who said he was a retired banker and was here as a volunteer docent. I followed him, though I had spent most of my life traveling and had always managed to avoid tour guides. He said he had loved art since he was a young man in the city and had gotten to know an artist named Sheeler, who was apparently famous but new to me. I now saw Sheeler’s surprisingly deep and romantic treatments of industrial scenes. And then I came upon Hoppers like those I had sought in vain at the Met. And after that I was standing in front of Arshile Gorky’s portrait of himself as a small child with his mother in Armenia shortly before the mother starved to death in the Turkish genocide. And then I was looking at an abstract Gorky called “The Betrothal," which seemed to be about danger and betrayal, and was more literal than abstract to me, and I knew I was getting connected visually again, to the bad and to the good, in ways I had always wanted. Getting information by induction not deduction. And I did not stop looking in museums and galleries for many, many months, and I only paused in the times, starting a year later, that I was myself drawing and painting.