5 min read

Better Than a Mirror

It's a game of leap-frog to be in whatever room they're not.
Better Than a Mirror

The drive east goes swimmingly until I hit the Pennsylvania part of I-80. Time slows to a crawl as roadwork alternates with roadkill punctuated by rain and wind.  A couple hours away from the North Bergen, NJ Super 8 where I've reserved a room, the highway becomes a parking lot. I ignore the electronic billboard warning of the crash ahead and have no smartphone to try for a detour, so I sit and wait. A few cars up a man takes his dog for a walk between parked trucks. Clusters gather to discuss and complain. After we move up a few inches, the impatient trucker behind me taps my rear bumper in his eagerness to move on. He apologizes profusely and seeing as there's no damage to my rented Maxima, I forget about it.

We start moving two-and-a-half hours later. As we ease by the accident site, halfway into the shoulder of the median, it's clear why we were stuck so long. The ass end of an 18-wheeler points skyward, perpendicular to the roadway, the tractor not visible in the ditch below, as two oversized tow trucks sit to either side, a small committee of men loitering about, no doubt debating the best way to right this wreck. Three other trucks are by the curb, in various states of damage. I can't complain about the inconvenience caused, but whatever wind there was at my sails is now blowing straight in my face. By the time I locate the motel it's after 10pm, no time to find out what North Bergen's all about.

The next morning, I dip into the Lincoln Tunnel, whose Jersey side is a few hundred feet from where I slept, and tool around Manhattan awhile before realizing that I've lucked into being there with a car on a Sunday, which means free parking wherever I like. I park right in front of Mick's record store, then walk north to the Morgan. Gil meets me there at 11am and we go in to look at Holbein's portraits. The small galleries are glutted with a crowd whose median age makes me feel like a tike. I think a few date back to the times of the paintings on show. The room with the Dance of Death engravings must read differently to them. More personal, closer to home.

Edging close to one of the impossibly detailed faces, I endure a litany of pompous close-reading from the expert ahead of me. She assures her companion that some mediocre apprentice must have botched a bit of the subject's hair because it blends into the foliage behing his right ear. I'd wager my life's fortune this woman has never done anything with a paintbrush that anyone will ever recall. But she knows everything there is to know about the work of others.

Afterwards, we walk south, looking for a place to eat. Gil doesn't have a spot in mind, so I suggest Veselka, but we can see from a half a block away that there's a line out the door. We duck down a few steps into a restaurant  nearby. It's all but empty inside. The room is dominated by a large bar, crowned with a sculpture that looks like the Golden Calf. The only other diners soon get up and make their way to a back room. Thereafter, a half dozen others come in and beeline there as well. We speculate what the place is about. Certainly not a brunch spot. Some kind of cabaret or club. Whatever it is, we're not in the know, which is perfectly fine for our purposes.

After saying goodbye to Gil, I go into the record store and shoot the shit with Mick awhile. It's a new job, but he's worked at record stores most of his life, so it's sort of old hat. We talk music and art. He tells me he's begun creating a new language in his free time.

Then I drive to Boston. Somewhere in Connecticut, the clerk at a gas station tells me he's only there as a favor to a friend. He restores classic cars and is the biggest supplier of honey in the region. He names an impressive number of beehives which I can't remember. His friend wanted him to work at the gas station after his wife left him and he survived a cancer scare. If I'd stayed at the counter longer, there's no telling how many more parts of his life story I'd know. I got a good start on his biography in under five minutes.

The next afternoon I go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see the Philip Guston retrospective. It's the show delayed years because the museums lined up to host it were afraid that his Klansmen paintings would be misunderstood in the wake of the country's recent racial reckonings. The curators have stepped all over themselves to guarantee that not a single visitor could misinterpret the artist's intent or be offended in the least.

I'm offended, but not for any of the reasons they've gamed out. It's a visually busy, neurotic hang. All the wall labels, charts, videos, and extraneous detrita make it difficult to just take in the art. Guston's been near and dear to me for forty years. I've got an image of his tattooed on my gut. No mountain full of guilt-ridden explainers could completely ruin my time with these pictures, but the staff of this museum give it the old college try. To add insult to injury, two of the curators lead a guided tour through the galleries the same time I visit. It's a game of leap-frog to be in whatever room they're not.

The overall impression recalls the recreation of Hitler's Degenerate Art exhibit that toured museums thirty years ago. The organizers took pains to add context to explain the Nazi Party's hatred of some of the great masterpieces of the early 20th century. That show celebrated art that was unjustly mocked and maligned. The purpose of the Guston show is less clear. The curators clearly don't trust viewers to make up their own minds about this artist's intent. Perhaps they themselves aren't sure that renderings of hooded men are not a tacit endorsement of hatred. Maybe we've reached a point that every last nuance must be spelled out in neon letters half a story high. I hope not.

I doodle in my sketchbook trying to tune out the learned voices and enjoy the company of the lumpy pink and beige figures that populate Guston's canvases. I've known them a long time. Nobody's verbiage—no matter how well-meaning or wrong-headed—can spoil my good feelings toward these flawed, tormented beings.

Some of them work better than mirrors.

—I talked to musician Rick Rizzo and wrote a review of Tobias Carroll's forthcoming book.

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