First Love and Irresistible Impulses

Or the man who licked the Vermeer

My first boyfriend, in college, always smelled of Ivory soap. It was a clean, innocent scent, like baby powder or shampoo, and therefore perhaps appropriate for young love. For years after we broke up, whenever I smelled Ivory soap on another person, male or female, I would be filled with nostalgia and longing.

But this is not a story about romance. It’s about art, and a similar phenomenon I believe happens with certain works of art. Late one night about a week ago, I flipped over the current issue of New York Review of Books and there was a Robert Motherwell collage, The Irregular Heart, as part of an advertisement for a show at Paul Kasmin Gallery. My own heart was feeling a little irregular too, doing something like the thumpa thumpa drumbeat accompaniment to love at any age.

When I was in college, around the time of that first beau, I fell madly in love with Helen Frankenthaler, and by extension, Motherwell, her husband from 1958 to 1971. I would pore over reproductions of the paintings, prints, collages of both. I was briefly a studio-arts major at Princeton, but the university in those days was no place for a budding artist, though I believe the school was trying its best with only two or three people on the art faculty. The work I was doing, though, was nothing like Frankenthaler’s or Motherwell’s. To the best of my recollection, my canvases were subdued geometric things in pale washed-out colors, mostly beige and gray. My adviser was Michael Graves—not yet the Michael Graves—who would come to my studio, spout a little Noam Chomsky for reasons still unclear to me, and then explain that if I had a vertical element there I needed a horizontal element here.

It all felt strangely inauthentic, and after a year of struggling in the studio, even after winning some kind of prize for my canvases, I switched over to an art-history major and wrote my junior paper on—who else?—Helen Frankenthaler. If I couldn’t be Helen, I could at least write about her work. And I believe I see something of her in The Irregular Heart in the bands of “off” colors at top and bottom—remove the torn air-mail stamps and prosaic brown-paper packaging and you might indeed have a Frankenthaler painting, though probably not a very good one.

I can in part explain how this collage works formally—a very clever move to smack that address label, with its no-nonsense stamps and typescript and whiff of bohemian glamor (Provincetown!), on top of the lyrical rush of paint. But I can’t fully explain my emotional reaction, unless it has to do with a powerful kind of love and nostalgia.

I do know, though, that artists and art lovers have extreme responses to certain works of art. My friend Christine Taylor Patten recalls being in the Galleria Borghese in Rome when she was eleven years old, while her family was living in Europe.  “I went to the Borghese with my parents and got separated from them when they went into another gallery,” she recalls.” I was alone in the large sculpture gallery, wholly mesmerized by the beauty and strength of all the huge sculptures and couldn’t resist going around from one to another, feeling the cold smooth forms, the crevices, feeling the surprising power of the marble.  I didn’t know the guards were in the corner, whispering to each other when I looked up. They had let me loose in there for many minutes, all in my own world. It changed my life, opened up a new world I have lived in ever since.

“Later, in other museums when I was older I tried to touch sculptures and learned that it was forbidden,” she continues. “I finally realized how the guards at the Borghese broke some rules letting me wander as I did. My foam sculptures in the 70s were all a tribute to that experience, making a place where people could touch the form, be inside of it.”

Painter Robert Natkin once confessed to me that in his desire to know Vermeer better—to somehow absorb him into his system—he crept close to one of the canvases in the Frick and managed to lick the surface while a guard was nowhere in sight. He wasn’t a kid at the time, and he certainly knew better (possibly saliva and varnish aren’t a good mix), but he was overcome by an irresistible impulse.

Many years ago, at a show of Mark Rothko’s paintings, I watched as a young woman, standing only a little more than a foot from the canvas, broke into a slow writhing solo dance, caressing her arms and flexing her legs. (Rothko would probably have loved it—he once said the best viewing distance for his works was about 18 inches from the surface.)

But most of us, especially as well-behaved adults, are content simply to contemplate, to ingest with our eyes and mind, powerful works of art. I recall sitting in the Courtauld Institute in London for fully an hour, admiring Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, trying to puzzle out its meaning and characters. But that’s nothing compared with critic Adam Gopnik, who told me a few years ago: “One of the things that’s really important to me and has been for 25 to 30 years is sitting with single pictures, with a notebook open for as long as I possibly can. I’m talking an hour, two hours, three hours.” Arden Reed (with whom I will be doing a podcast interview for the site next month) argues in a new book, Slow Looking, that works of art unfold over time. He quotes impresario Peter Sellars: “The act [of painting] itself opens and refines consciousness by slowing down time as it focuses the eye.” And, after an eight-year infatuation with Manet’s Young Lady in 1866, he should know.

But his was an ongoing and protracted love affair, while my rediscovery of the Motherwell was more like that whiff of Ivory soap, a resuscitation and remembrance of an early passion.

In the last 20 years, in writing countless reviews and looking at innumerable shows, I’ve come to appreciate and admire many kinds of art—from the Minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd to the videos of Christian Marclay and Shirin Neshat to performances from Gilbert and George and Marina Abramoviƈ…and the list goes on and on.

But seldom does anything get the heart going thumpa thumpa like that Motherwell collage. Go figure.

Ann Landi

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