At the Museum

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We play a game, my husband and I, whenever we visit a museum. In each room of an exhibit, we each get to select one piece of art to own. Monetary value doesn’t play a role since our one rule is that we are not allowed to “sell” the piece once we own it. The main objective is to find a piece that evokes a rush of feeling. The second criterion is the piece’s staying power. We will have to live with the piece for a very long time so it is important that we choose work that we will want to look at again and again. It seems like a lot is at stake. When we were first together, we often chose the same pieces, something that I took as a sign.

Recently, we drove from Chicago to the Milwaukee Art Museum for a Kandinsky retrospective. The show felt important since Kandinsky is my husband’s favorite artist. When he first told me that, I thought I might understand him better by closely observing Kandinsky’s work. I would stand in front of the ones he liked best—the paintings with clusters of geometric shapes that seemed to be free falling—and try to step inside them.

By the time we arrived in Milwaukee, we were tired from the drive, all the traffic leaving Chicago. In the first room of Kandinsky’s earlier work, I liked an impressionistic painting called Old Town. A woman walking down a golden-yellow path, a village made of tan and yellow buildings with ochre, amber, orange and blazingFullSizeRender_1 red rooftops in the background. A bit Cézanne-like. It was the only one in the room that evoked a stir in the pit of my stomach. Close up I studied the narrative, enjoyed the details and the strokes. When I stepped back, the painting blurred easily into abstraction, a pleasing composition of colors and shapes.

Many of my favorite paintings seem to have been done at a crossroads in an artist’s life, right before his or her paintings move from realism into abstraction. I love that moment of transition, of being on the edge. I am not talking about the historic movement to modernism and how it is attributed in part to the invention of the camera, the details and theories of which we learned in art history courses. I am talking about something more personal, when the artist begins to see his or work differently, when there is a shift in his or her vision.

I disliked my husband’s choice, The Spectators, a crowd of people in a park, fairly realistically depicted stick-like figures, all in the attire of the late 1890s or early twentieth century. Straw hats. Children in sailor suits. Men with mustaches. Women with hair combed up into Gibson girls. They are observing something outside the view of the painting. I had no idea where we would hang it once we got it home, but I didn’t want to take the time for him to make a different choice. He is generally a slower decision maker than I am and I was tired.

Overall, the game did not go well. We did not find the show remarkable. We had acquired more at the Magritte show in Chicago earlier in the month and neither of us cares much for his work. With Magritte, perhaps it was the way the work was hung, many pieces individually spotlighted instead of crowded together. But it seemed more than that—or less than that with the Kandinsky show.

I liked Kandinsky’s ink drawings, but India ink has always been one of my favorite mediums, one I learned to work in when I was a very small child since that’s what my mother, an artist, was doing at the time. Just seeing a line of it streak across a sheet of rough paper, flaring and, then, thinning, makes my bones itch. I remember the feel of the pen, and the sound of the scratch of the nib on the thick paper. I remember how easily the ink splotched if I wasn’t careful and how patiently I had to wait for watercolor to dry before applying ink on top of the paint so that it didn’t bleed. But if made correctly, there is nothing more perfect than the fine pitch-black strokes of India ink. No greater spread of variations from delicate to bold. So I thought maybe staring at Kandinsky’s ink drawings simply created a Proustian moment, where I imbued the drawings with more than they were worth.

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By the time we got to his latest works, the geometric shapes, we had given up making selections. We looked at a study that had hung over Kandinsky’s kitchen table.

“He probably couldn’t sell it,” said my husband. I wondered about that. Would I hang one I couldn’t sell in my own home if I didn’t like it? Wouldn’t I want to keep my favorites?

When we finished we were exhausted, yet still had a few hours before we could arrive at the place we were spending the night. We discussed going out onto the grounds to take a nap. But there was no one else even sitting on the grass, so a rest there seemed too brash. Instead we took the stairs up to the museum’s rather fine permanent modern collection. First we took a stroll around the rooms. Along the main galley, there were a number of smaller rooms that branched off to look out on Lake Michigan. White walls and blue water, clean lines. I felt like I could be standing inside a Hockney. I couldn’t see the refracting light in the water—what I love in his paintings of swimming pools—but I could feel the purity and the imminence of the lake’s blueness. I wondered fleetingly if I might change the rules and select a room instead of a work of art? But that is a different game, one I only play by myself.

We stood for a while in front of three large Ellsworth Kelly companion pieces—one red, one blue and one yellow. Each canvas a solid sheet of one color. I tried to discern something in the brush stroke. Nothing. It looked like the paint could have been rolled on. I remember standing in front of a single color painting in the Cleveland Art Institute with my mother when I was a small child. My mother stared at the painting for a long time, tilting her head this way and that, assessing the work.

I grew bored and said, “I could have done that!”

My mother snapped back, “But you didn’t, did you?”

I felt embarrassed and confused, a little remiss that I hadn’t done it first. Also, a bit miffed at my mother; where did she think I could even get my hands on such large canvases? Years later, I understood that for some people, the clean minimalism was FullSizeRenderpleasing, maybe even exciting. And at the time these works were first created, their very newness was arousing. I don’t think the one my mother was looking at back in the 60s was a Kelly. I think one could actually see paint swirls and brush strokes. I think she might have been stepping inside and my comment ruined it.

“I’ve never really understood this kind of art,” said my husband. I wondered if I had phrased my comment to my mother more like he did, whether I would have elicited a better response. In the next room, I selected a rather small O’Keefe that I had not seen plastered on calendars or coffee mugs. Though our home is getting crowded—with both real and imagined art—I knew I could find a home for it.

Yet the spirit of our game simply wasn’t there. I have seldom visited a museum when I didn’t return home with a feeling I had not had when I departed. I was disappointed to have gotten so little out of this particular trip, but I didn’t think it said anything ominous about my marriage. The first time my husband visited Russia (not long after perestroika), on a scientific excursion, he had brought home a rather primitive oil painting of Russian urban life that he had purchased from a street artist. I didn’t like it much and became annoyed when my husband said, “The cost of the paint and canvas alone was worth the cost.” I think he was joking, but the remark or the painting somehow led to a fight where he tried to rip the canvas in two. We survived that skirmish. In fact, we framed the painting and hung it for a few years. Just a little dented down the center.

Nor did I think that art was losing its pull on me. I have had too much experience being excited by art to have it evaporate so quickly.

I have been visiting museums since I was a small child. I had lessons at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I got to sit in the main galleries and sketch. We have photos of my brother, as a small boy, posing with his fist to his chin next to Rodin’s “The Thinker,” one of only about ten versions of the sculpture that was cast and patinated during Rodin’s lifetime. My husband and I had our first date at the Art Institute of Chicago. We walked around a photo exhibit forming mental opinions of each other as we stated opinions of the photography. We have photos of my husband posing next to statues at the Rodin Museum in Paris, contorting his body in the shapes of the sculptures, a common touristy prank. Many of my best experiences with my husband have revolved around museums and galleries. I remember how giddy we became speculating about the surrealist fur cup, saucer and spoon at the MoMA, how we had decided that perhaps drinking and eating out of that cup for the remainder of one’s life might make a better punishment than the death penalty. I remember how thrilled we were when we bought our first print together, a Hollis Sigler—phantom figures dancing around a room—and how crazy we felt when we actually purchased a huge signed print by Miro. Not part of our game—a real Miro! An abstraction of swirling reds and blacks. An impulse buy that we probably couldn’t afford.

About six months before our trip to Milwaukee, I had found a print of a house in the desert in the basement of a thrift store that was going out of business. It was large and well-crafted and framed in thick wood—behind the house rose purple and green mountains with pale yellow scribbles of paint, in front of the house the land dipped down into an arroyo, and around the walls grew squiggly deep green plants and bushes. The landscape seemed alive. I could feel myself inside the house, yet I could see the piece dissolving into shapes. The price tag said $250. I ran home to get my husband who returned with me and was just as excited about the painting, though it turned out that I had read the price incorrectly. The painting was $750, not $250. The store manager split the difference with us. I was not wrong about that painting. Every time I look at it I get a slight tightness in my belly and see something new. And if that ever stops I know, “the frame alone was worth the cost,” though I won’t say that aloud.

But that day, in Milwaukee, it wasn’t working.

Fortunately there were several large configurations of couches. We settled in the corner of one of them near the Kelly paintings. More or less upright, my head on my husband’s shoulder, we tried to doze in a manner that did not attract attention. I drifted in and out but distinctly heard two people, at different times, in front of the Kelly say, “I could have done that!”

Where was my mother when I needed her?

Of course I knew her actual location, in a “reminiscence neighborhood” in a senior residence. My mother’s mind is lost now to Alzheimer’s, a haze of disconnected thoughts and words, bleached and smeared memories. I hope it feels like being inside one of those blank canvases that are incomprehensible to so many, but captivating to her.

The third person in front of the Kelly who said, “I could have done that” followed up his remark with, “I figure if I can do it, it’s not art.”

His statement woke me up. I had more or less assumed the opposite—if I made it, it was art. I am not a visual artist—but I am a writer who thinks of writing as making things. And whenever I craft something in writing that makes me feel or think of anything in a new way, and might have a similar effect on an audience, I think it is art. I am not talking about simply reporting, documenting or explaining (though in some situations these too, I suppose can be art). I am not talking about art in the way that some of my younger, more naive students talk about art—“everything is art!” Nor am I talking about great art that will change the world. I am talking about when I—or any writer or visual artist—comes up with new images, new visions, understandings or combinations that stir emotions or thoughts. I am talking about pieces that have staying power, pieces that I can read or view multiple times and still find meaning. I am talking about starting out with one thing and finding another. And I am even talking about the game my husband I play, how we can see each other better by seeing art together.

I began thinking about how it might be interesting to record the comments of everyone who stood in front of the Kelly, see how many people, day in and day out, said, “I could have done that!” If I had heard three exact comments in less than an hour, the same words must be said over and over all day. It could be an interesting conceptual piece of art, hearing the phrase repeated endlessly, with varying emphasizes and tonalities, while standing in front of the pieces.

I could have done that.
I could have done that.
I could have done that.

I could call it The Spectators. And then I thought about my mother and what she might have meant. But you didn’t! Thinking about making something was not doing it, and those who knew exactly what to make before even beginning the work had not earned the right to say, I could do that! What was at stake if you knew what would happen?

I felt completely awake then, as if I was on to something, something about my mother, something about art. My realization did not completely crystallize before it dissolved into ideas that were not fully connected, but for a moment that day I felt the rush, what I often sought when viewing or making art, what it was like to be on the edge, to be almost within reach.

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Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.


Garnett Kilberg Cohen has published three collections of short stories, most recently Swarm to Glory (Wiseblood Books, September 2014). Her writing has won many awards, including the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, the Lawrence Foundation Prize (from Michigan Quarterly Review) and a Notable Essay Citation from Best American Essays 2011. She is a professor at Columbia College Chicago where she directs the Creative Nonfiction BA Program. More from this author →