I cheated on Monet once. I was with my girlfriend in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and we were standing so close together I could feel my girlfriend’s heart beating in front of the French impressionist’s paintings. He wasn’t getting the time of day from me. Sure, I glanced at the piece before me, taking in a pond with water lilies with the reflection of clouds in the water. An out-of-focus blurry version of a pond, like the kind of thing I would paint if I woke up one morning blessed with great artistic talent but with no ability to find my glasses. I turned away. I had no eyes for art at the moment. “It’s amazing isn’t it,” Robyn said. “Yes you are,” I replied. She giggled.
We moved around the museum like that. She was looking at masterworks. I was looking at her. Sneaking a kiss as we traveled through time, leaving the 18th century and entering the 19th century in the space of a room. You could probably see the progression of the art. I’m sure it all happened on a continuum with one artist’s work influencing another artist like a domino chain falling through the years. One artist rebelling against an era of sense and sensibility with mad and fantastic visions outside the horrible hard grasp of reality. That’s probably what was happening. I was lost in her, not lost in art. I learned nothing that day about Cezanne and Van Gogh, just happy to be by her side as she ran from painting to painting.
When lovers in love look at art, this is how it looks. Like nothing and everything at once. The universe is connected and running through invisible strings. It’s tied up together in these silky invisible wires. We’re all one impossibly pretty picture painted by disparate hands, naked and unafraid and on display to the world.
We had driven roughly seven hours to meet midway between our separate worlds. I was working at a newspaper in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A flat military town. The main drag through town is Fort Bragg Boulevard. It’s a long flat strip of porn shops and pawn shops the way I recall, a soulless stretch of morbid curiosity and broken dreams.
Robyn was working in Cranberry, Pennsylvania just outside Pittsburgh under perpetual gray skies in a hilly land of tiny municipalities whose concept of open meeting laws was often vague and distorted. In one tiny borough, a meeting was held prior to the actual public meeting. Every major decision was made in the pre-meeting in a room that seated 12. The public meeting after that was a show put on for people who came to see their government in action. Pre-rehearsed arguments were made. The votes played out like everyone knew they would because it had all happened before thirty minutes ago in a smaller space without microphones or public notice.
Coming from those bleak landscapes, we met in the beautiful middle in D.C. and loved it. Our meeting spot was the broad steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We saw our futures in the long reflecting pool at the base of the steps. We kissed on the steps and ate homemade sandwiches for lunch because in those days we were poor as dirt and happy as clams and lost in love. Then we would wander around art museums where I would not notice any art at all. I admired the slope of her neck and the curve of her body. I passed Picasso with disinterest as I held the hand of my true love.
Time passes. Seasons change. People calm down a bit. My lovely wife is still a beauty to behold. But I can now focus a little more clearly on the art all around me.
My appreciation for public art grew tenfold almost the moment we arrived in New York City a year ago. You don’t have to wander through the Metropolitan Museum of Art to find great art in Manhattan. The art finds you. It appears suddenly around a corner when you are walking with another destination entirely in mind. It pops up in a subway, on the wall of a building or in a park. It speaks to you in strange and compelling ways. Asks questions without answers. Seems impossible at times. Challenges your notions of what art is or should be.
Does art belong only in a museum in a frame with a security guard standing close by to be sure you can’t touch it? Maybe not. No. Definitely not. By making the art part of the landscape, the city gives you a gift. You may not always understand or appreciate these gifts. Did my tax dollars pay for a display of miles of giant colored rope? Yes. Hmm. But it’s yours. Why not embrace it?
Somewhere in these expressions of art is a stolen kiss from a lover in a time when the universe collapsed and expanded in your arms.