I was sitting before the window in a little cafe named Blackbird when I saw a well-read day-old copy of The New York Times. I reached over and pulled out The Arts section. I was first drawn to the striking image and then to Michael Kimmelman's words.
Sometimes on a whim I stop into the Bode Museum here to commune with a tiny clay sculpture of John the Baptist.I'm hooked. It seems we share a definition for the good things in life. When I find someone who believes in taking time out of his day to commune with a tiny sculpture, I want to know more. What else does he have to say?
It’s in a corner of a nearly always empty room, a bone-white bust, pretty and as androgynous as mid-1970s Berlin-addled David Bowie. The saint’s upturned eyes glow in the hard light through tall windows. Attributed to the 15th-century Luccan artist Matteo Civitali, the sculpture is all exquisite ecstasy and languor.And I start remembering what I love about museums, especially quiet museums, especially the rooms that do not have the of-the-moment crowd pleasing exhibitions. Yes, often those crowd pleasers are worth seeing, but the experience is entirely different.
There is nothing like standing in a silent room of a museum with a work that speaks to you. A room empty of people. A lingering museum guard is fine, but no one else fighting to stand before the piece you are admiring. No one bumping into you while they view the highlights with their headphones. No docents. No tours. No all-knowing friends explaining the meaning of the work to their interested and uninterested companions (did you see Midnight in Paris?). Just you and the work.
Before I left Chicago I planned a day of saying goodbye to some of my favorite places, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Adler Planetarium, and the Shedd Aquarium. It was a weekday and I walked along the lakefront to reach my first destination. If you are able, I highly recommend visiting weekend destinations on weekdays. It is a different world.
I recall entering the quiet museum. It seemed I was the first visitor. I had it all to myself, at least temporarily. I'll never forget the way the late morning light flooded into the atrium and onto the sculptures.
Later in the afternoon I visited the planetarium's giant dome, sat beneath a simulated night sky, and looked up at bright stars in an almost-empty theater.
I never made it to the aquarium. Still, it was an amazing day, one I hope I will never forget.
Michael Kimmelman's article and my memory of this day in Chicago remind me of how lucky I have been to have had a wide array of such beautiful experiences, all over the world.
There was something about art school that distanced me from this type of beauty. I don't know if it was the way I fully immersed myself in the degree experience by attending every single lecture and exhibition I could fit into my life at the time, or seeing the work of others as well as my own work through an academic and often critical eye, or if it was just too much of a good thing, but I graduated with a feeling that resembled a need for detoxification. The beauty was gone. I just wanted to get away from it all.
It has been about four years now and I've been slowly easing my way back in, learning to appreciate it again. It's nice to be back, but I don't regret the way this part of my life unfolded. The experience reminds me of something I read in an interview with Tobias Wolff.
But it’s good for a while to be dropped through the bottom, to be a little helpless, to have to scramble to make do, because as you get older, you do less and less of that, and it’s good for you, it takes the rust off.