Reading Plaques at the MOMA

Masks Confronting Death, James Ensor, 1888

I wonder about the museum guards. How are they trained and assigned to their exhibitions? Do they get to choose, or is it based on a reward/punishment system? Are the lax guards, the ones who smile at the pretty girls with questions and as such are made blind to the intrepid toddler peeling off the Matisse cut outs, then demoted to the most boring gallery, the somber German photography of rusted buckets? Can the portly gentleman guard in the intensely assaulting Gober room of running sinks and forest camouflage have SAD, and only the perpetual fluorescent daylight of the room makes him happy, while it would drive another mad?

Does the woman guard who tsk tsks at every passerby — whether or not they have that glint in their eye that denounces them as art touchers, as too close hoverers, as flash photographers — know she is tsking, or is she immune to her own body? Does the continuous loop of defiled Japanese vaginas projected above her head offend her, or are they soothing now, part of herself like the tsking? A waltz of tsk-pussy-tsk-pussy. Uh-uh don’t even think about getting too close to the genitals.

The experience of art in a public space flits easily between the communal and the personal, is reflective, selfish. Everyone is completely absorbed with the art around them, but to me, the visitors are just as fascinating as the pieces themselves. The MOMA in particular attracts a diverse, incredibly attractive, and foreign clientele. What do the others think of me , that eternal self-conscious nag. What do they see when I wander around, sleep faced at the avant garde — picking a rap song clean of everything but the vocals, and slowing these down to a lethargic roll, this is art? , I mutter-complaint like an old Jewish woman — and always, always, no matter how many times I see them, wide eyed at the de Chiricos, the Serats, the Légers, that one de Kooning? Yes, I admit there are some Picassos I linger at, and a van Gogh (a portrait of Roulin, van Gogh’s postman, whose beard I want to curl), and at first the baseness and simplicity of my preferences are almost embarrassing, but I quickly reconsider this: it speaks of the emotional accessibility of their work, the sincerity, which has popularized it. There’s nothing wrong with being a basic bitch, I harken back to some dumb women’s magazine article about there being nothing wrong with liking Uggs, Pumpkin Spice Lattes, and Lauren Conrad (there is, of course, but the essential argument is valid, or at the very least, comforting).

I come to a Monet, which I usually find unmoving, and dip into a spot of light in the large, long painting, light in a shadow of lotuses and water, and nearly cry. Loss, the feeling of every loss I’ve felt and so many I have not, I find it in that light. Maybe this is how Monet painted, while crying, and I am before the recollection, the blurred strokes of image. I hate Gauguin, in the way that girl from work rubs me the wrong way but without any true reason, but then am charmed by his washerwomen bent over a static river, and chastise myself for it. I have always liked Toulouse-Lautrec, even if he is plastered on teenaged girls’ calendars and cheap black canvas totes sold in Parisian tourist shops. He was essentially a rich midget who cavorted with lesbians and crackheads, how could one not like him? Everything is joy and color and gaiety, but it is tinged with failure: the burn of show business, addiction, heart break, illness, poverty; the realization that indulgence is fleeting in the eyes of the opera singer, in the curl of the prostitute’s spine… I read every plaque; I forget everything almost immediately.

I always pay a visit, as if the figures were expecting me with tea and biscuits, to my favorite painting. Pink and gray, like a murky dawn or winter flesh, coils around the masks. The masked carnivalers never smile directly at me, they are focused on mocking (se burlan, mots justes) the shrinking Death at their center, that unexpected wallflower! One of them though, he looks at something directly above my right shoulder, and it sends a double shiver of terror and pleasure through me; he bothers me. His hollow, fixed gaze is sick, specifically because it does not meet my own open eyes. He sees something else by me, on me, something I cannot see or shake off. What does it say about me that this is the painting I always seek out?

I have blond hair (it sates something in me to use blond and not blonde, makes me feel as if I were writing a 1950s movie script: enter smouldering blond, cascading hair curving around the heavy lidded eyes, pillowy mouth) and red lips and a large band-aid on the right white underbelly of my neck, second skin, what must others think, if they even see me? Did she try to kill herself, did she cut herself shaving (can’t even see the Adam’s apple!), was it a bar fight or tumor?

I burnt myself with a curling iron, I smile to myself, a stupid secret. I wonder if it would make it onto a plaque.

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