I was seated right next to someone, although there were plenty of seats at the counter.
“I taught high school for eleven years,” I said, instead of saying, “I am a teacher,” or, “I am a writer.”
In Kansas City, when I say I am a writer, I think people find me eccentric. In New York, I’m afraid they think I am a famous or successful writer, and then I have to explain my level.
The man I chatted with was an illustrator, graphic design teacher. We talked easily about cities, schools. I ate cold squash soup with toasted lentils on top (very fancy food for me) and had a glass of wine because I always have a glass of wine at MoMA, even when I am unemployed.
The guy talked about having met the wife of one of the artists who was currently showing at the museum. I told him about meeting someone who knew Rothko, last time I chatted up a stranger at the cafe.
“Rothko is buried right down the street from my house,” he said.
I used to not feel much about Rothko until my ex liked Rothko, and I started paying more attention, and then I saw his paintings in their natural habitat in DC and in London, and I understood they were trying to do something to you. Reading Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art helped, too. Colors and how they could, would, do, should affect people.
We paid our bills.
“Let’s just look at one thing together,” the guy said.
“Okay, sure,” I said.
We went around the corner. We looked up at the title and explanation for the display. I don’t like to read those, though, so I didn’t. We went on inside.
“What do you think?” he said.
The room was full of pieces of cardboard you had to walk around, barriers.
“It’s fun,” I said. “It’s like a maze, sort of.”
On the walls were photos of windows and hands. “I don’t think the pictures go with the maze, though, the maze is fun, and the pictures are so formal.”
“I don’t feel like I get this high-concept stuff sometimes,” the guy said, which is another way of saying what people often say in art museums: “What the hell is this supposed to be?”
“A lot of modern art is funny,” I said. “I hate that people don’t smile or laugh more when they look at art. A lot of it is funny.”
I was remembering a bit from the Met Breuer show, a film that says, “A FILM BY BLAH BLAH WHOEVER” and then the radar-screen swoop countdown: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1… 1/2, 1/4,” it goes on to smaller fractions, I laughed, and I loved watching successive people laugh when the 1/2 showed up.
And it reminded me of all the years I counted down to start class. I would do the same thing. 1/16. 1/32.
The truth is, I didn’t get to be a real teacher out here, at neither school did I have the discipline support or academic support to do the job the way I know it should be done. If New York City schools weren’t a monopoly, if I knew more people, if I were better at navigating the thorny brush of the enormous system, I would have left earlier.
Another truth is: knowing I won’t teach this year is freeing, confusing, and scary. I’m not sure who I am if I’m not a teacher. My adult life started when I started teaching. That made me an adult more than anything else I’ve ever done. It made me feel useful.
“I just don’t get the levels,” the guy said. “I mean, like being an illustrator, there’s this huge jump to be considered someone who does work that gets in a gallery, and there’s this other huge jump to get in a place like this, and I don’t get it.”
“Oh, I don’t get it, either,” I said. Who does? Some artists are praised and paid for their work early and often, some labor along with little stuff as I do, some hit big and then become unfashionable, some make stuff and keep it in a drawer. All that is hard because it took a lot to make things in the first place, let alone deal with everyone else’s reaction, or lack of reaction.
I wish all of the agents I’ve ever pitched to had all fought to fight for my work, and I wish I had work as a teacher that was comfortable and exciting for me. But that isn’t about levels, it’s about support and opportunity.
I wish someone thought I was a genius, so I could be lonely like I’m above it all instead of normal lonely. That must be levels.
“Well. Nice to meet you. Enjoy the museum.”
“You, too,” I said.
Image: No. 13, Mark Rothko, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aside: the Met owns a bunch of Rothkos they don’t even display. Including that one.
The show we saw at MoMA, which was much more interesting after I bothered to read the introductory text.