In the end, all I wanted was to reach out my hands over something warm, something with incandescence to it. I told myself: don’t photograph the art; experience it. Nevertheless, I left with a field of people hovering under luminous, billowing fabrics; a Rodin mouth open in pain; an Eiffel Tower diced to its geometries.
Most of all, a Chagall window, glowing bulbs hazy within panes of synonym-less blue.
At a certain point I had to sit down. There had been a thicket of Monet branches; there had been a peevish girl leaning awkwardly on her elbows.
“What do we really know of shapes in space?” one of the artists asked. Mark Strand had just died, and he said he kept moving to keep the space whole behind him.
I kept moving.
I watched myself elongate in a tall golden bead, imported to Chicago with marvelous foresight. I am no person; merely a line, merely a moving mark. I watched myself travel out of the room; drop from the rim of the gleaming surface. In the modern wing, I kept reading that I should decipher fish and jawbones on the edges of bright spatter canvases. I couldn’t see them; I could see nothing but an inkblot test.
I laughed at a Miro: two suitors for the same monstrous woman of lobed color. The best joke I have seen all day. I thought of how lovely the Dalis were—sinister-faced poker players crouched at the doors of the unconscious. They are playing. It had not struck me before.
Eventually, I went on a mission for the real: bilious Byzantine angels and crowds with their proscribed gold squares of atmosphere; saints’ faces knocked out with a knifepoint. It has always been my favorite thrill: the thought of anonymous brains and hands. The thought of the blade hitting the wood panel, Our Lady with her perennially disappointed eyes bearing the wrath.
I read that Roman women were all sculpted as archetypes: you cannot tell who are the goddesses and who are the mortals. You can never tell, can you?
There was a small engagement ring, inscribed to the bride.
Upstairs, the frankness of Van Gogh’s face had been newly surprising, his sideburns combed with blood.
The March of Memory was, in actuality, a march of knucklebones and vertebrae, single file to the horizon, lances held aloft. There, at last: the martial bones I had been looking for.
Whenever I gazed at a woman purely because of her beauty, I was informed that the artist had made a turn, deliberately, back to the decorative. The same could be said of ivory-inlaid pianos and Italian grotto chairs resembling sundials. We have deliberately turned in this direction. Lest you forget.
I tried to exit through the gift shop, but could not.
Everywhere I turned, I thought about how I could get back to the Chagall blue. A poet jumped from a window into a cityscape simmering with neon; I paused. Picasso’s guitarist—one of the first paintings I read about as a child—reminded me of a story. In it, famous artists ordered paint as if it were food: orange and lemon and blueberry and mashed potato. They were never satisfied, or full.
I tried to exit through the gift shop, but I couldn’t decide what had meant the most to me, or if I had had an experience at all.
“You can’t go through this way,” the attendant said. I had to turn around.
When at last I left, I realized how lonely I was. My mind had been crowded for hours; I had been standing, dazed, missing certain things like the up-thrust nose of Degas’ imperious little dancer; the long-necked women of Matisse. Really, I had been missing women altogether.
When I walked up to the train platform, the lights were going on in a row and I joined in with another crowd. The moon appeared—briefest watermark—over the tops of skyscrapers. We chugged on, the city blinking down to a spectral violet.
The whole time I thought only about how to get back to that Chagall gold and blue: how to make love apparent in the color of a window.
It’s harder than you think.