Saturday, August 13, 2011

Leave Me Alone

Blackbird, 2011

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.

He begins:
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?

He continues:
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.


  1. Your words resonate with me, Denise. When I was in Paris years ago, I kept returning to the not so frequented Ste. Chappelle, drinking in the light from its stained glass windows, feeling that I had found on my own this little jewel, an experience that has stayed with me much more than my visit to the bigger and crowded Notre Dame Cathedral.

  2. Cha sen, It seems you know exactly what I mean. A beautiful memory.

  3. ah, this triggered a memory! in 2007, we took a fast train from Bologna to Rome on our next-to-last day in Italy to get to the opening of the Mark Rothko retrospective, the first since 1985. It was held in the newly restored Palazzo delle Esposizioni. Our tickets awaited inside. On arrival, a massive storm opened up torrential rains on the city. People who had waited on line to get in vanished. Slowly we became aware that, in this monumental hall, we were practically alone with these masterful and meditative fields of color. It was a rare experience, as if designed for us alone.
    thanks, Denise, for the spark! (Kimmelman's writing is indeed compelling, too. "pretty and androgynous as a mid-1970's Berlin-addled David Bowie." wow.)

  4. I love our city on weekdays so much more, and I do agree, it's a completely different experience...

    beautifully written,
    as always.

  5. i used to go to the risd museum and just sit for hours at a time with this tiny little lippo memmi tempera altarpiece painting of saint catherine of alexandria. it helped me get through the wilder moments in that playpen. after i left school, i knew i didn't have enough life in me (experience rolled over and chewed on) to make meaningful art...i was so adrift. so i just went and lived for the next 20 years. and then found my way back to painting by studying that very deep and intimate form that had years before entranced me so completely, so quietly. (which has been its own intense segment of living for me.) as i look back, i wouldn't have traded one single moment of that time at school for anything else. it is still all such a part of who i am, who i had to become.

  6. solitude and a museum were made for one another.
    i don't understand crowds, especially when they are bestowed upon me. then i must flee, regardless my initial intentions. sometimes i'm found in the far corner of the garden, until the crowd dissipates.
    i've spent hours like this, sitting, waiting.

  7. "Sometimes on a whim I stop into the Bode Museum here to commune with a tiny clay sculpture of John the Baptist." Why, I'm hooked too.

    Here's to time spent in quiet conversation with a work, in a quiet gallery museum wing or otherwise.

    It is these moments that one remembers from holidays. Finding an unpopulated room in the Louvre, I had the works all to myself. Bliss. Such utter bliss.

    And it is moments like this closer to home that one also cherishes. I have a couple of favourite paintings I like to visit for this very reason at the national gallery here. It is a nice sidestep into a calm and quiet place before launching self back into day. I feel just like Alice as I discover another world parallel to my own. Dear me, it seems I could go on... thanks for this post.

  8. Beautiful words. His and yours.

  9. I feel a little sad, a little lonely after reading this, maybe over the loss of a perspective, a point of view intellectualized away. Or maybe its the alone-ness of the day you describe that haunts me. Such a day doesn't come often in my life, but when it does I feel adrift, so I admire how well you handle such a day.

  10. Denise: spot on, as always. When I lived in Rome I loved walking into old temples or churches on a weekday, just for the quietness and the feeling would fill me and last me for a while.

  11. a lovely post. those small, quiet, private moments are integral to my memories of places - and times past - and I still seek them out. not lonely but alone. thank you too for the quote - an astonishing piece of synchronicity that has answered something for me today.

  12. Interesting to think about, and beautifully said.

  13. As I think it's important to take children to see beautiful works in museums, I like my reflective time, alone. Thinking. A bench in a quiet museum in a wonderful thing.

  14. Yes there is something about seeing some pieces in a quiet room alone. There are hoards around the famous pieces, like when I saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre--you couldn't get close enough for long enough without getting bumped into to really appreiciate it.

    And studying something academically has a way of saturating--literature was like that for me. After studying it and analyzing it and saying how much it reminds you of Bahktin or Derrida--it took me a while to get back into reading good literature.

  15. Ahh I also read Michael Kimmelman's article and completely understood how he felt. When I visited the David Collection in Copenhagen I was the only one there - which was delightful. And likewise in Stockholm we spent several hours at an incredible museum which was empty except for us. There is a tiny part of me that feels sadness that the "masses" don't see these places, but I like more the fact that there are these hidden treasures in this overcrowded world where one can escape.
    I hope all is well and the sun is shining in SF - love the light in the image on the post above. Annie x

  16. nancy, Practically alone with a hall full of Rothko's work. Fabulous. What an experience. I'm happy to see you walking back through this memory. Over the years I've spent extended periods of time in front of one of his paintings we have in a museum here. I'm trying to imagine an entire hall -- magical.

    M., Thank you.

    alison, Life does seem to move in waves. We have those times of discovery, feeling adrift, just living, returning to the past, and then discovering again. Although I did have that similar adrift feeling after school, I wouldn't trade it either. It is part of what made me who I am today. And on we go.

    n, I understand completely. I'm not much for crowds. Waiting in the garden for things to quiet down seems a fine idea.

    gracia, I do know this bliss you describe. It's a beautiful thing. And the closer-to-home experience you describe is another I appreciate. A wonderful reason for becoming a member of a museum. The ability to just stop in and visit with one work without feeling a full admission price has been wasted is a nice treat. When William Kentridge had Tide Table in SFMOMA I stopped in to visit that one work so many times. This happened again with a Pipilotti Rist installation. Now I've gone on...

    Julie, Thank you.

    Rachael, Luckily this particular loss of perspective was temporary and has returned. We are resilient creatures. My day alone did not feel sad to me at all. I had gone to so many goodbye brunches, lunches, dinners, drinks, and such with friends and co-workers it was definitely time for a little quiet reflection. I loved that peaceful day.

    Amelia, Old churches on quiet days, especially in Italy. I too find them special.

    kate, An answer found. Wonderful.

    Lecia, Thank you.

    Jane, I am happy to have visited museums as a child, but fully understand a parent's desire to spend some time alone with art. Two very different experiences.

    Annje, Seeing the Mona Lisa was almost comical. I had to laugh at the number of people crowded around the small piece and the impossibility of truly looking at the work. On the other hand, it is nice that there are so many quiet spaces in a museum such as the Louvre. Everyone rushes to the work highlighted in the guide books leaving a surprising amount of work surrounded by plenty of breathing space.

    Annie, I agree. Cheers to hidden treasures in an overcrowded world. The sun is actually shining in my corner of San Francisco, at the moment. Did you send it? If so, thank you.

  17. I love going to museums alone. It's hard to be alone in the museum here in NYC, but at least if you go there alone, you can be alone with your thoughts. I blogged about it not too long ago, actually.

    Found you through Jane's blog -- Upper Pond. So, hello!