Standing in An Art Museum

Sleepless night thoughts on art museums.

I’m standing in an art museum.

I am three years old and this is the first art museum in my memory. The Heckscher Museum of Art. We came to the park for the fireworks but it turns out fireworks are too drastic for me. The museum building looks like a prison but the inside is all understated blue walls. In my memory now, the pictures all look like motion blur.

I beg to go to the art museum in Albany when my dad is there on business. My dad and I stand in front of a painting of a man that takes up an entire wall. His white collar has so many folds and creases I feel at a loss to count them. My dad says he doesn’t “get” the picture. I don’t think there’s anything to get.

My mom travels for work and she has free city passes for the buses and museums. While she works I go to visit the art. Boston. Providence. Chicago. Charlotte. Detroit. Knoxville. Hartford. I’m too shy to ask for the audio tour, too scared to take the regular tour. Sometimes I sit in front of a picture for 20 minutes trying to figure out how it makes me feel. When I can’t, I imagine how it makes the strangers around me feel.

At the art museum in Philadelphia I am standing in front of the first Monet I will ever see. It’s on the right side of the first room in the museum. A room whose other pictures I never get to see. My dad looks at me, exasperated and impatient, while I try to find the meaning of life in the flecks of blue at the edges on the frame.

There is a field trip. We go to the Vanderbilt house, it has a a planetarium and an art museum. There is a field trip. This time we go to the Museum of Arts and Design. I stare at a chair wondering if art needs to be so uncomfortable. There is a field trip. We sit in a room filled with teapots while they give us a lecture about what makes something art. I lay on the floor upside down while I do the assignment and the teacher tells me to take it seriously. I feel very serious about teapots while I am upside down.

I’m in the Guggenheim for the first time and for the first time the boy I like cards his hand through my hair while we stand in front of a picture of a naked woman. It feels too intimate to be real. I feel exposed when he touches my cheek. He doesn’t like the picture and we only date for two weeks.

I’m elated to have a free pass to the art museums near my college. I go to the Carnegie at least once a month. I sit and I watch people react to art after I memorize the pictures. Once, a friend takes me to the The Andy Warhol Museum. We stand in front of a piece of rusted metal and he says “It’s made with pee.” There are two more urine-based exhibits so I don’t go back to that gallery. Instead I let Matt take me to the Wood Street Gallery and I kneel on the floor in awe of a mechanical wheelchair, crying. Matt looks uncomfortable.

I’m in the SAM by myself in a room of porcelain plates and cups. I feel like the teacups are lonely and sad because no one can use them. I have to leave the room when I start to feel too much like a teacup.

We’re in a museum in Frankfurt and Andrew is reading a description to me. “There’s newspaper clippings behind each of these paintings” he says carefully and I stare at the date on the painting. I try to remember what happened that day but I draw a blank. ‘That’s why the artist made a picture’ I think, ‘to remind himself’.

I’m standing in front of a 13th century triptych in Das Städel, all three of its panels are opened for public consumption. I see a flash of gold underneath one of the open arms. I pretend to tie my shoe and find there is a hidden world on the back of the cabinet. It’s a present just for me.

In a room of self-portraits in Stuttgart I stand in the crossfire of uneven eyes seeping out from every painting. I am seen and unseen. I am fading away under no ones view. A stranger walks in and I feel myself shudder when their eyes move across me as if I am part of the exhibit.

There is a box in the middle of the room in Amsterdam at the impossibly modern Stedelijk. You cannot see anything inside it but the box screams and make odd noises at inconsistent intervals. My mom covers her ears and leaves the room right away. I think Andrew would really like this one because it’s awful.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is a sculpture museum. The statues are a breath away. So close that I set off the alarms twice because there are no visible barriers. In the biggest room, we stare up at a man with a beard and a soft face, “Who is this?” my mom thinks it looks like Andrew. “It’s Jesus” I tell her, starring into his eyes. “I guess” she drawls as she exits the room without looking at any of the other statues.

We’re standing in the hallway in Tallinn’s KUMU. I’m starring at the gaping maw of a stairwell and Jürgen’s mouth is thinning with his patience. In a room of paintings, I’m starring out the window to the city below. While he’s looking at sculptures I watch people’s feet sweep across the floor. At least we both frown in the room of tongues.

There’s a exhibit of smells in a museum in Helsinki. Tentatively I waft the smell of each decorative bottle while Andrew gives me a puzzled look. It feels like having a secret when he stands next to me.

In every picture in Lisbon lives the Madonna. She is behind my eyes. She is living in my skin and my mind and she hasn’t the right. I avert my gaze to a picture of the seaside instead. It has pleasing grey-green waves and the sky is lit with pinks mixed deep in to yellow. It makes me think of another life I lived and it single-handedly exorcises the Madonna from me.

I’m standing in an art museum, looking backwards through time at myself standing in a museum.

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