Anish Kapoor’s installation, My Red Homeland was in Abu Dhabi. I was in New York.
“I didn’t know there was more than one Guggenheim…” I told M 1. “I guess that just shows you how much of a country girl I am.” I tried to laugh it off, but I was really disappointed. After seeing an Instagram post featuring My Red Homeland at the Guggenheim, I fixated on it. It was this giant installation of rich, red oil based wax that looked like a crater in the middle of a pristine white room. But then there was this cube with a flat arm that apparently moved. I imagined it smoothed out the wax over and over again. There was something about the richness of the color and the malleability of the wax that captivated me. I felt it with my eyes through my phone’s screen, knowing if I could touch it (and that I wouldn’t be able to) I would love the sensation. I thought when I watched this mechanized sculpture do its thing, I’d have: A Moment. An Experience. With Art. I’d have something to write about that didn’t involve being a struggling twenty-something.
But I hadn’t read the hashtags. Sandwiched between #TheCreativeAct and #Guggenheim, there it was… #GuggenheimAbuDhabi.
The budgeting part of my brain stung first. I just spent $25 to go to a museum I don’t even like. I went to the Gug once during college and left disappointed and annoyed, unsure of what I had just seen. The building, I liked. It swirled like soft serve ice cream. M, not having been to the Gug before and being the laid back guy that he is, didn’t mind my mess up. So we went all the way up to the top floor and I tried to forget about the red wax and the moving bar and my embarrassment. There would be something else worth writing about. We found an installation that involved germs growing on white furniture and another one that featured ants in a circuit board looking maze. M thought the latter was cruel. Blinded by expectation and disappointment, I didn’t appreciate either of these exhibits.
I stalked about the rippling floors and nearly shouted at a Kandinsky that I hated it. By the third floor, I thought that maybe it wasn’t that it was modern art or New York City or disappointment, that I had a problem with, it was STRAIGHT LINES! I didn’t like straight lines! M tried to cheer me up by making up stories about each painting. He launched into this hokey 1930s radio voice which helped.
I took a photo of him looking over the side of the ramp and onto all of the other museum patrons. This was something familiar, something I could understand or at least understand my limits of understanding.
I was about ready to leave and so was he.
Making our way out, we found Woman Ironing by Picasso during his blue period. This painting was done early in his career, at a not particularly lucrative time either. Struggling to make a living as an artist, he painted everyday people trying to make a living and used blue, greens, and gray to capitalize on this ennui. His friend, Jaime Sabartés wrote, “Picasso believes that art emanates from sadness and pain” , which is evident in this painting. Drawn in by the slant of her shoulders and the definition of her face, I stopped my internal whine-olauge. The depth of the shadow carving into her neck and collarbone made me sigh. What looks like rumpled fabric next to a bowl, I thought resembled a skull and the background looks transparent, erased. The whole thing was haunting. This woman is missing her context; her place and her people. It looks like she is painted from one long line, pulled and angled into a single portrait of exhaustion. “I like this one.” I told M and apologized to Picasso. My complaints with the museum and with myself felt trivial in the presence of this.
I found myself boarding the train home to New Haven a few quick hours later. I curled around my backpack full of dirty clothes from a weekend well spent. Almost protectively, I thought about the Guggenheim- as if focusing on earlier annoyances and frustration would be more comfortable than the ache in my chest from another goodbye to M. Slowly, the memory came back into focus with some new information. I didn’t want to look at something that looked like me. Disparate, chaotic, uncertain. The paintings and sculptures were inviting me to ask questions and I had enough questions in my life. I didn’t know it then, but even the Woman Ironing harbors a secret underpainting of a potentially much more cheerful man. There are always questions, always things unknown.
I thought about M’s funny narration again. How he was able to make the best of the situation and appreciate things for what they were. How he didn’t go into the museum with expectations like I did and he didn’t have the same lens of uncertainty I had about my life. Or maybe better put, the same uncertainty but less of the anxiety around it. He didn’t hold onto his fears like I did. Maybe he didn’t confront them as much as I did either. Still, he embraced the present in a way I struggled with and in a way I thought I used to be much better at.
Like most people in their twenties, and I suspect most people at any age, I feel a little lost and scared. I get caught between the practical: How will I ever afford to move out of my parent’s house? and the existential: How will I ever live a meaningful life? and chase my tail for days at a time too afraid or too tired to make choices in one direction or the other. It doesn’t help that I’ve been lulled into this holding pattern with each new job/fellowship/opportunity I seem to encounter:
We’ll call you in two weeks.
We’ll let you know when the funding comes through. There’s a meeting Wednesday.
We will contact all applicants by June 1.
It seems like it’s never two weeks, or June 1, or Wednesday. It’s after a week of me calling and emailing and then me assuming it’s a no, that I get an email redundantly confirming that.2
I am never going to be happy if I can’t appreciate the present more. Not in museums, not in my career, and not with M. Our long distance relationship is plagued by the anxious desire for us to “be in the same place” as my career is to “get a really awesome job”.
I remembered that feeling in front of Woman Ironing, something between shame and understanding. I annoyed myself with my expectations and the eclipsing feeling of “wanting more”. This pervasive, grumbling hunger, sometimes serving me well- as drive and diligence- but starving me now. I texted M.
You love me for exactly the way I am.
-Yes, dear. That is the case.
1 M has a very popular man’s name. When I first met him, I already had a friend with the same name. So in my 19-year-old arrogance, I renamed him on the spot. “No, no. That can’t be your name… What’s your last name?” “M——.” “Okay. I’ll call you M.” I still call him that today and for privacy’s sake, it works well for this blog.
2 I am maybe- a little- bitter.