I was a guard at the Met for two and a half years after graduate school. It was a good gig for a young artist: four day work week, health insurance, decent enough pay that I could afford a studio, and, of course, the chance to look at great stuff all day. The chance to live, forty hours a week, with some of the most beautiful things in the world. It was an education in itself.
I have my favorites in the permanent collection – favorite rooms, favorite pieces, favorite elevators and floors, even – culled from standing for hours at a time in the same rooms, looking at the same paintings, or sculpture, or chairs, or jewelry or whatever. And I’m pretty sure that from fall of ’93 to February of ’96, I spent shifts in every gallery in the place. I’ll probably write about some of those favorites in the permanent collection some time, but lately I’ve been thinking about some of the special exhibtions that happened while I was there and how they have affected me as an artist.
The first show that comes to mind is the retrospective of Willem de Kooning paintings that originated at the National Gallery and came to New York in the fall of 1994. It was a knockout show, full of the best examples of each period from his career, beginning with the early biomorphic abstractions, to the classicist, obsessively worked paintings of men, moving on through the brilliant black and whites, to the women and the gritty urban abstractions, to the highway paintings, to the strange and gooey reprise of women after his move to Long Island, to the yellowy pastorals, to the explosive and generous landscapy abstractions of the ‘70’s, and culminating, of course, in the slowly emptying areas and ribbonlike arcings of the very last paintings, when he was succumbing to Alzheimer’s.
De Kooning is a hero of mine, and I think one of the greatest painters ever to work in this country. He is a hero because of his commitment and working methods, as well as because of his straightforward, if often malapropped, unpretentious, and richly insightful statements about painting. Sometimes I think of him as the Yogi Berra of modern art. Yes, I’ve read the Stevens and Swan biography and I know he was a selfish bastard, too, with a monstrously mucked up personal life, but I prefer to admire the art, if not the artist. I’ve been thinking a lot about the black and whites lately, in relation to my own monochrome paintings. Their melting cubist structures, their marvelously slippery and speedy passages of paint.
Many other paintings stand out in my head of course – Pirate, Attic, Doorway to the River, Easter Monday, Whose Name Was Writ in Water, Woman with Bicycle, to name a few. I remember watching Allen Ginsburg losing himself in that last one, which for some reason struck me as pretty funny.
But I also came away with respect for that much maligned period in his career in the 60’s just after he left Manhattan and started working out in his self-designed studio in the Springs, the period of strange oblong paintings of women and highly keyed colors of close-toned yellows and pinks and cadmium light reds. The ‘mayonnaise’ paintings. They are difficult paintings to like, but by show’s end, I liked them. I had looked long and hard enough to see that they did indeed work, gaudily and brazenly and with a healthy dollop of frothy bad taste, really. I learned that some things reveal themselves slowly, but once they begin, they can be as exhaustive and fulsome as some of the richest work of his careeer. And I began to see how they had led the way into the great, orchestral work of the 1970’s, in which the color took on such rich and hearty life.
It was one of the best lessons learned while working at the Met – that sometimes the art that seems weird and ugly and formless beyond help, does actually have something to it that works, and it will reveal itself with a little work from you. The trick is developing the instinct to discover what will reward that kind of patience. Another thing I learned from working at the Met is the importance of good, comfortable shoes.