How to Go to a Museum Alone

Barnett Newman, Vir-Heroicus-Sublimis-1950
by: Barnett Newman
What I’ve found is that sometimes even a pretty piece of architecture, a nice sunset, a surprising fumble into a quiet neighborhood will bring the love, the enchantment, the stupefied obsession with a city every person in the world romanticizes back into my head.

The art of the MoMA begins on the second floor. An escalator ride above lingering visitors, long coat-check lines, and sliding glass mouths that open to streets and a world of people passing by. A series of black and white portraits hung on the three giant walls in the opening walkway. In the center is a cluster of couches packed with people napping and glued to phones, looking just as bored as if they were sitting outside a department store. Footsteps, murmuring voices, and everything else, quickly consolidates into gentle, back of the head irritation. I’m still wearing the tension and fatigue from hours of train rides and standing around strangers on my commute.

The ADD pill I swallowed with an overpriced falafel and water cup sitting next to a group of young male tourists who asked the cashier if, “she knew where the best bar was,” began to kick in, just as I was confronted with a wall full of information, dates, and names. The portraits display a person of every age between one and one-hundred. I walk through them slowly, the childhood passing swiftly, lingering in the ugly pictures of early adulthood longer than necessary, and most everything else passing in empty observation until I reached the sixties. The last forty photos are elderly people, and what I noticed is that unlike the childhood, the early adulthood, and everything that happened in between, the older the people grew, the less I was able to recognize their age. Suddenly their names, the location of their photo: a nursing home, or a living room full of antiques, grew more significant, and the amount of health they wore became obvious. And after awhile everything was ambiguous, years and years, a ninety-five year old looking younger than an eighty-eight year old, and the hundred year old woman sitting with good posture, in nice clothes in her living room.

It was grey outside and the forecast predicted a storm in a few hours. It wasn’t terribly cold and the sculpture garden was packed with people enjoying fresh air and dry seats. I’ve been living on Long Island a year and a half now, I’m a sophomore in my fourth semester of college and am in the strange place of feeling almost halfway done. I’ve experienced the months of doing too much and getting worn out, and I’ve experienced the months of not doing enough and getting bored. And in the current moment I feel I’m caught somewhere between the two. I think about the article I’m going to write for this day and wonder how it will go, as I move past black and white photos, and weave in and out of exhibits, some new to me, some old. I walk through each room, lingering in the pieces that catch my attention, lingering near the one’s I’ve seen three times but still find interesting, and buzz through the boring ones. I spend too much time looking at a room of Russian Graphic Design, taking in Internationalist type and propaganda colors like their candy. Basking in the Lissitzky’s and Malevich’s, loving the simplicity of the shapes and images of constructivist design, reminiscing of the months when stumbling upon such a find would have felt like gold. I stare at the prints longer than necessary because I want to. I feel at ease in my own visual playhouse knowing that in the moment, everything is for me.

I anticipate the room that holds Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis 1950-51. And when I find it, tucked in the middle of a large space hanging across the wall from a Jackson Pollock and a herd of people staring at the Pollock with their backs to the red masterpiece. I stand close to the canvas like Newman says you should and my world is consumed in red between a black pillar and a white, cutting vertically across the canvas to linger at either ends of my peripheral. And for a quiet moment I remember lessons on zip painting and experimentation of the relationship between the viewer and the canvas, and I simply let that be. And while a bulk of the literature I once retained on Newman has dissolved in my memory I do recall the the connection between the white line and the black, a suggestion of good and evil in relation to life and spirituality. I treat the Josef Alber’s photomontage exhibit shoved in the back next to the staircase like it’s crowned jewels. Spending minutes analyzing each one like it’s a complex painting. There are two photos of a staircase, on in negative and flipped upside down so they create a chevron pattern when placed next to each other. There are friends and wives, holding babies and beer bottles, on beaches, in homes, and sitting on back porches. For a moment I bask in the subtle humor, the life, the personality. I think of the Bauhaus and the months reading about the Bauhaus like it was a Netflix series I was binging. And I wonder if an interest like that will ripen or wane over time.

There’s couples on dates, friends walking around, and I wonder, I really wonder why I keep coming back to this museum alone. I look out the window where I see the silhouette of midtown from my comfortable seat on the fifth floor. The sky is grey and the buildings raise around me like a cage, and for a moment I feel small, like I’ve been swallowed by a system of life and activity that still feels foreign to me, and that in some ways always will. I think of the first time standing here only a few months into my first year of college, my first time in the city, and in a museum by myself. I have memories of the miles walked through the concrete jungle, the vendors I passed, the stores that appeared out of nowhere and I remember the vibrant curiosity for a looming city that had not yet been numbed by a year of days like this one. What I’ve found is that sometimes even a pretty piece of architecture, a nice sunset, a surprising fumble into a quiet neighborhood will bring the love, the enchantment, the stupefied obsession with a city every person in the world romanticizes back into my head.

I remember finding the room that contained Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and weaseling my way to the front to look at the canvas like it was the first time. I remember the first time finding it, and wondering why I had never known it was here in New York, in the MoMA all along. High School summers and spring breaks spent travelling to Paris and Italy, seeing Van Gogh’s but never seeing this one. There’s a pile of sand next to the elevators with glass cut into it. A sign reads that it’s a conceptual piece sending a message about decay, the environment, something. I look back out to the skyline attempting a dry meditation on sand that is quickly forgotten in favor of peering into streets and buildings, and remembering how little of New York, how little of the city I really know and are familiar with.

 

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