Asking For It

There were so many rooms in Chicago, and I was desperate to see all of them– the modern wing, the Grant Wood, all of it.  I had been to the Art Institute ten years prior– I just didn’t remember anything but a room tinted blue and taking off one boot to touch my winter virgin foot to the March lawn.  Only for a minute.  Like touching a chicken at a petting zoo when you are a grown-up and you know you should have no lust for touching a chicken.  I wanted live, plump blades of grass on the sole of my foot.  The lawn was new and intimidating, and my foot loved it.

Back in Chicago, a decade hence, I was with a teacher friend instead of an artist friend.  I loved drinking with him.  I loved sharing stories.  He is one of the tenderest, most amicable people in my life.  But he is not a person who would plan an entire vacation around the paintings he would see.  He would not view a trip to MoMA as the erotic height of a week in New York, feeling the heat off the paintings from blocks away.  He’s more like, you know, a normal person.

We stood in front of a particularly energetic canvas, a violently splashy mess of tangy colors.  No scribbling– I don’t like scribbing– but blotches and streaks that were even and uneven at the same time, carrot gratings and Nancy Drew flashlight streaks, a rambling that held together quite well.  I lapped it and lapped it up until I had drunk up the whole thing.

“I mean, like this,” my friend said.  My friend, keeper of my most vulnerable questions, sharer of a hundred bottles of wine and many an intimidating task.  “What is the point of this?”

“Okay, okay.”  I began.  “See how thoughtful the color is? Green down here, and then up here, for tension.  See the shape of it?  Like a cartoon cloud?  See how the lines go up here, then over there, and pull your eye around so you want everything?  And the crowdedness here versus the lightness up here?  This up here keeps it together, the common length and rhythm of lines, and this movement pulls it around to keep it interesting.  See?”

I’ve been to a lot of museums, and spend a lot of time in the 20th century section.  I’ve heard a lot of people sneer at the Pollocks and the Rothkos.  I enjoy people mocking those kinds of paintings.  For one thing, I know the paintings can take it.  It’s like how I’m never defensive when people joke about Jesus.  If you think Jesus was one of the coolest people ever, then surely he could take a damn joke.  Pollock and Rothko and Jesus don’t need defending.  People who aren’t into them don’t need master’s degrees or talking-tos or evangelists.  They’re not asking for anything.  Often, they’re honest, and sometimes, they’re funny.  Both honesty and humor are essentially good.

I thought my friend was asking for something, though.  What did I see?  Why did I love it?

“Really?” he said.

I grinned.  He shrugged.  We kept moving, me with my eyes, he just with the feet.

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