A Monet of One’s Own

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1919 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Originally published in the NY Times)

I SLIPPED away from work on a recent Monday to take my two nieces to the Garry Winogrand photography exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I doubt there’s a better way to play hooky in New York right now.

When you go — not if, but when (and soon, by the way; the show closes Sept. 21) — I suggest you bring a thesaurus. Because it wasn’t long before we found words failing us. An image of an acrobat caught midleap on a Manhattan street, for instance, struck the three of us as the epitome of “amazing.” So did another photo. Then another. Upon seeing the first few dozen of the more than 175 prints on view we pledged that we would not use that word to describe every single photo. Beautiful, incredible, joyful, strange, very sad — we made it as far as the second room before we were back to the A’s.

“It is just so… amazing,” said Katy, who’s 18 and an aspiring photographer, as if she’d been rendered helpless by yet another example of the Bronx-born artist’s particular genius for street photography. I nodded in sympathy. In a world plagued by intractable problems — police shootings, Ebola spreading, spiraling civil wars, planes falling from the sky — lacking sufficient synonyms for a work of art seemed a good one to have.

When we reached the last room, I asked Katy which picture was her favorite. She led me back to the one that had stumped her in the synonym department. Her sister, Emily, who’s 14 and had been off wandering through the Met’s collection of European paintings, then showed me her favorite piece in the museum: a Monet water lily painting (the first she’d ever seen) from 1919.

This is when I let each girl in on a secret: It can be yours. No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own. Ownership does not come free. One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening; and bring to it one’s full attention. The investment will be repaid as one discovers something new with each viewing — say, a detail in the background, a person nearly cropped from the picture frame, or a tiny patch of canvas left unpainted, deliberately so, one may assume, as if to remind you not to take all the painted parts for granted.

This is true not just for New Yorkers but for anyone anywhere with art to be visited — art being a relative term, in my definition. Your Monet may, in fact, be an unpolished gemstone or mineral element. Natural history museums are filled with beauties fairly begging to be adopted. Stay alert. Next time a tattered Egyptian mummy speaks to you across the ages, don’t walk away. Stay a while. Spend some time with it. Give it a proper name: Yours.

But don’t be hasty. You must be sure you are besotted. When it happens, you will know. A couple of years back, I spent much of Memorial Day at the Museum of Modern Art with my friend Oliver, a self-described philistine when it comes to art. He struggled to see the value in the work of the performance artist Marina Abramovic as she sat gazing into the eyes of museum visitors. And the enormous, bright red Barnett Newman painting, “Vir Heroicus Sublimis,” got him all worked up, railing against the pretensions of abstract expressionism.

This was my cue to lead Oliver to another gallery on another floor and steer him toward an early, rose-tinted Picasso. He smiled a smile that even Edvard Munch might have wanted to paint. And he stayed and stayed and stayed, a self-appointed sentinel to Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse.”

It’s yours, I said. Congratulations.

I have been slowly adding to my own collection since moving to New York. I acquired a Francis Bacon nude that I fell hard for at the artist’s retrospective at the Met five years ago. The piece was on loan from a European museum, and the fact that I might never see it again made it all the more irresistible. My naked Bacon and I are forever embroiled in a long-distance romance.

Usually, I gravitate toward works that are overlooked, tucked back in a far corner, or that are a museum’s “John Doe” — Artist Unknown. I am just as likely to make a medieval suit of armor mine as I am an obscure Diane Arbus. I also push myself to go into galleries that I would not normally think about entering. Often, this is a source of my best finds. I am strongly anti-museum map and militantly in favor of getting lost. While there’s nothing wrong with navigating straight to the old masters, I believe it’s far nicer to lose your way in a labyrinth of galleries and suddenly find yourself, as I did one Saturday evening, face to face with an Odilon Redon bouquet looking so fresh I could have sworn the paint was still wet.

Perhaps the best part about possessing art in this way is that what’s mine can be yours, and vice versa. In fact, I would not be surprised if half of New York City has also put dibs on the Monet that Emily chose. This made it no less hers.

I brought her in closer to her new acquisition: “Emily, meet your Monet. Monet, Emily.”

Words did not fail her: “Hello, beautiful,” she whispered.

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