MOMA in 1984

In the spring of 1984, my husband of 9 years left me.  I was in my first year of graduate school with a 5-year-old son, and less than 1000.00 to my name.  Logically, I left my son with his grandmother, and left the Texas panhandle to explore New York City and the possibility of striking out on my own.  This did not, of course, work out.  In order to attend graduate school at either NYU or Columbia while supporting a child, I would have had to accept a job offer at Merril Lynch and work full-time all day to pay rent, then go to classes at night — and basically never see my child again.  I eventually dropped out of college, began working (at least 1) full-time job all the time for the next 14 years, and remained in Texas.

But the 6 weeks I spent in NYC were almost enough to sustain me.

I knew only 1 name to call on for help while in NYC — a former Peace Corps associate of the boy who had been best man at my wedding nearly a  decade earlier.  She was working at the Am. Museum of Natural History as a vertebrate paleontologist, and so within 2 days of arriving (ostensibly to apply for jobs, apply to grad schools and clear my head of the testosterone junkie I’d been married to) — she had given me the key piece of information I needed to live for 6 weeks in a third floor Roosevelt Avenue flat whose only window opened 17 feet from the elevated tracks of the #7 express train in Queens: All the museums are free to students and even if you’re not a student, you can get in for free if you have no money.

It only took about a week to realize that there was no way I could afford either time, $$. or the sacrifice of never seeing my son.  I knew immediately that I would never be able to live there happily.  So while I nominally applied here and there, and kept all the interview appointments I’d set up before arriving — I actually spent most of my time in the various museums throughout Manhattan.  I had $2.60+2 subway tokens/day to spend — so I went into Manhattan every morning and stayed until nearly bedtime every night.  Thanks to Peace Corps Girl, I not only saw every inch of the Natural History Museum exhibits, I got to explore the miles of storerooms, stacks, and gymnasium sized vaults full of ivory, skeletons, specimen trays/taxidermy drawers — and natural oddities — that are stored there.

The revelations, however, were the art museums.

One very overcast and steamy day I decided to get off the streets and out of the heat — so I visited the Museum of Modern Art.  This is the old MOMA — before remodeling.  Before the PS Museum off Manhattan.  Before I’d visited the Metropolitan, the Fricke, the Guggenheim, or any other art museum.  Ever.  And had it not been for the heat outside, I might never have gone there.  Modern art — bah humbug.  Squiggles, scribbles, splattered paint, and pointy women.

But as I walked past the coat check and the lobby full of people looking at guide-books and purchases from the museum store (which I was not eligible for due to lack of funds…) — I looked to my right and there were, on the other side of 2 spotless swinging glass doors, incredible paintings by Magritte.

My asthma almost got the best of me.

It literally took my breath away.  I had seen art in art  history books.  I’d seen windmill/barn/blue bonnet paintings in West Texas.  I’d even been to old Santa Fe (before California moved there) and seen painters out on the streets with their easels.  I’d seen student art in the Art/Arch building at the university.  But I’d never actually seen a painting that could transport your mind to places you didn’t know existed.  or to places that never actually existed in the physical world as opposed to the mind of the artist.  I simply did not realize what art  – is.

I stayed in the Magritte exhibition room until I realized that the museum was going to close around me.

Then I went back again the next day.  I started with Magritte again, then I set out, without a map or anybody recommending me in any direction.  Let me say that after so many hours of Magritte, I’d decided that he must be the best and most underestimated artist in the history of the world.  I knew the name, and I had some vague notion of bowler hats and clouds and tobacco pipes — but that was about it. Upon seeing an actual collected exhibit of dozens of paintings by the same artist — I had found themes and metaphors and visualized emotion — the kind of thing I had only associated with literature and theater and music.  I was an instant Magritteophile.  I read every word in the plexiglass frames beside each painting. I looked over peoples’ shoulders and read from their guidebooks.

I went to the MOMA Store — and discovered that shopping in a place where you have no chance of actually purchasing something is boring after the first 90 seconds.

I went to the MOMA Cinema, where students from the universities would go to see restored or recently discovered films from the early decades of the 20th Century.  My first (and only) experience there was with the Claudette Colbert/Don Ameche classic Midnight, (as in “every Cinderella has her midnight.”)  Even having just written a thesis on film history, I’d never seen this one.  The real surprise though was not the movie — which I adored — but the theater and the audience  The place was packed and SRO — with film lovers.

There were no babies crying, or teenage couples making-out in the back row.  There were no cowboy hats blocking the screen, sticky floors, or people munching smelly popcorn.  It was a theater full of people all there for the same reason — the love of the story and the silvery art up on the screen.  It was like being in church.

So I told you all that to tell you this:  On my third day at the MOMA, I was walking, aimlessly (as usual) through the building, looking for something else to smack me in the face and take my breath away — and I walked up a closed stairway to an enclosed and apparently empty small room.  The walls were gray-blue and cool.  The floor was slatted wood.  There were three doors offering three choices of which way to go.

Then I heard a girl gasp behind me.

When I turned round, I realized I was in a room with one painting, hung so that visitors could not get closer than 4 feet to the canvas.  There was a neatly dressed and unassuming guard seated on a wooden chair in the corner.

It was Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night hanging completely alone on a modestly lit wall.

To say that a single moment can change your life sounds overly dramatic.  And to be honest — it was not just that single moment.  It was the collection of moments I spent in those 5-6 weeks that changed my life.  But what I felt that day at the MOMA was as close to physical shock as I have ever felt without being hit by a car or a bullet.  My mind and my body were overwhelmed by what I was seeing.

At first, I thought it was trick lighting on a poster or a really good print.  Or maybe some other artist’s “answer” to Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  Or someone making a comment on the Don McLean song, “Starry Starry Night.” (remember, I was just 27 at the time….)  I realized there were tears on my face (as there are now, nearly 25 years later, just remembering) — and the only conclusion I could draw was that I was looking at the real painting.

I stood in that room for almost 2 hours.  People would cross through without looking up at the painting.  Other people would come in by the group-ful and chat or read aloud to each other from their little guides.  The guard sat quietly, reading a paperback. Almost everyone acted as though this were some kind of every day occurence.  As if you pass by the visual metaphor for the 20th Century every day.  As though it is even possible to pass the painting by, unnoticed.  Or complacent.   Of course, Van Gogh didn’t make it to the 20th Century himself — he just managed to create it on canvas a few years early.

I spent more days in the MOMA during that “failed” trip to NYC, and many of them had the “ah-ha” moments that are still with me.

But nothing has ever changed the way I see the world (and art) so much as that one moment —


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