This fall, MIT Press published The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories by Lynne Tillman¸ a collection of critical essays on art, culture, and ideas written as short fiction. Several of these stories were originally published in A.i.A. in the 1980s and ’90s, and elicited letters from readers who complained that Madame Realism is not a “professional museum-goer.” The introduction to an entry published in our May 1988 issue offers a concise summary of its heroine’s erudite enthusiasm: “Madame Realism decided to write about the places she likes to go, places that show art that might be considered marginal and some museums that don’t show art at all. Inevitably she found herself returning to the big cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Museum and the Hirshhorn, but mostly she just looked at the things society treasures, wherever she found them. Taking herself on the road, Madame Realism soon found herself as much off it as on it. She discovered that since it’s a thin line between art and popular culture, and one can jaywalk easily if all objects are not thought of as inherently valuable.” The full essay appears below. —Eds.
TANGIER MOROCCO: It’s the Feast of Isaac, and much of Tangier is shut down and will be for the next three days. Second only to Ramadan in holiness for Moslems, the feast celebrates Isaac’s not being killed by Abraham. Sheep are sacrificed in his honor and their bleating resounds throughout the city. For the Moroccans, the cost of one sheep (about $90) is burdensome; I’m told that families save all year round to buy one. The acrid smell of burning sheep heads and sheep fur wafts through the Casbah. Thin Rivers of blood mark the narrow sheets. Men gather around wood fires, built in oil-drums, turning over charred sheep heads to make a special dish to eat the next day.
The next day I ask my one-day guide to take me to the Caves of Hercules, but find myself first as the Palais Mendoub. “The Palais,” as it’s referred to by all Tangier, is one of Malcolm Forbes’s many residences. It houses the multimillionaire’s toy soldier collection, and there are about 70,000 toy soldiers in it. Because it’s the Feast of Isaac most of the Palais is closed and I get to see just a fraction of what’s on display. Given the context of the Feast, one can’t help thinking things like “lambs to the slaughter” when gazing at the tiny model men, “toy armies,” set up in miniaturized reenactments of great battles. One is an exact replica, the caption says, of the 16th-century Battle of the Three Kings, “in which Moroccan forces routed a European army.” The Forbeses have gone to some trouble to represent their host country advantageously; the museum was even officially opened by Moroccan Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed in August 1978. Present-day Morocco is not known for its progress toward democracy, I think, picturing the Crown Prince and the multimillionaire toasting the toy soldiers. Politics certainly cannot be disregarded when viewing a museum dedicated to the valorization of war, no matter how nonsectarian and presentative it claims to be.
The scaling-down of war itself is disturbing: the spectator looms over thousands of little men. The soldiers are “just pawns in the game,” a saying made literal by these displays. To me this twist is one of the collection’s virtues. The desire to collect these little men seems to be made up of many parts: mastery not only over the collection’s field of choice (to have the best objects or the most compete set), but also, on an unconscious level, over the armies of one’s childhood, which live in the imagination forever. I try to imagine one battlefield in motion, as in those movies where a ship-in-stormy-waters scene is shot in a bathtub. I love taking baths and like the opportunity, whenever it presents itself, to image one. Behind the Palais lies the Atlantic Ocean, a majestic backyard, or bathtub, for that matter, which, along with the Palais itself, overshadows the little men and scenes of great struggle “writ small.” Reconstructed by the Belgian architect Robert Gerofi, the Palais is the scene of many grand parties, and I realize that the terrace has been used in at least one movie I saw, where swingers cavorted jet-set style.
I always like the idea of travel but I don’t actually like jetting from place to place. I don’t really mind being a tourist—it exaggerates the sense of life I generally have, like going to the movies, being in part a spectator. To find myself wandering around streets I don’t know or streets I do know and call “home” is not so different I’ve discovered. Products follow me wherever I go. Familiar brands breed a false sense of security. As for false senses of security, today’s Herald Tribune reports that Cyrus Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Shah of Iran, “announced a campaign from Paris to overthrow the Khomeini regime and to restore a constitutional monarchy.” Bani-Sadr, in exile in a Paris suburb, says: “I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about.”
LONDON: The newly opened Freud Museum, at 20 Maresfield Gardens, where Freud lived last, has the real, the authentic couch. Anna Freud refused to allow the Viennese to keep it, symbolic retribution for that country’s treatment of the very old and ill Freud who had to flee Austria, lucky to get out. His study has been kept as it was, Greek and Roman antiquities on the desk, on the shelves, in glass and mahogany cabinets. Oriental rugs cover the floor and the fabled couch, making the couch seem like an extension of what’s beneath it, which isn’t a bad metaphor for psychoanalysis. (This reminds me of a movie made by Jung’s students— wherever they wanted to show the unconscious at work, people got into elevators and went down.) The room is rich in deep reds and browns, and produces in me the feeling I had when read aloud to from the Arabian Nights. It also makes me wonder if Freud ever got the Scheherazade feeling about his patients, all those individual repositories of culture and society he listened to so unceasingly. The study’s a conducive, even seductive setting in which to hear the red (shameful) and brown (dark) narratives of his analysands. With all the statuary around, you sense the “family” surrounding Freud—representations of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons; they were props perhaps, or the cast of his constant theater.
The tour guide moves us to the dining room. Unfortunately he pronounces Freud’s name as if there were a “w” after the “F,” sounding very much like Barbara Walters. He tells a little group of us what Fwoid ate for lunch—soup, a bit of meat, a vegetable. I’m not interested in his eating habits, nor is my friend, so we leave the tour and wander through the rest of the house, unescorted and untutored. We remark on how Sean Connery’s office in Marnie obviously refers to Freud’s.
NEW YORK: Those people who wrote Art in America were right. I’m not a professional museum-goer. I do go to museums and galleries, but I’m especially drawn to out-of-the-way places, like houses of famous dead people, where society preserves what it deems instructive and valuable. When I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the moment I mounted those monumental stairs, an immense exhaustion overcame me. I tried to ask directions at the information desk, but the noise from the crowd of museum-goers was deafening, an acoustical nightmare, like being in a large swimming pool. With map in hand, I followed the crowds to “Suleyman the Magnificent,” the “Hudson River School,” “Image of the Mind” and, by accident, medieval art; a couple of Vermeers, the Greeks, a Noguchi, and a Japanese woman demonstrating the art of flower arrangement.
The Met’s brochures and signs accompanying the Suleyman exhibition contain the same written material, so that if one wanted to memorize the information it would be easy, as in grade school where the teacher is supposed to follow the textbook and reproduce it in class. Faced with the unfamiliar, we the public have been trained to rely on museums, like schools, to serve up art and culture like pieces of pie: little wedges of esthetics, criticism, politics and history. Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) was “renowned as a legislator, statesman, poet and generous patron of the arts. Like all Ottoman emperors, he was taught a practical trade.” In his case, it was goldsmithing, and therefore he supported jewelers most enthusiastically, which accounts, in part, for the jewel-encrusted Korans, boxes and scabbards on display. Oohs and aahs from the crowds around me are well-deserved. “I can’t see very well,” one woman says to another. We’re walking around in a dimly lit set of rooms, under-lit to protect the beautiful scrolls and gold-embroidered fabrics from fading. I’m reminded of being in a hamman, or Turkish bath, which is always cloudy with steam, but unlike one you might go into in Istanbul, there’s art surrounding you, not naked bodies. I’m also reminded that when naked East met naked West, the amount of body hair Western woman had shocked the Turkish women, who giggled in embarrassment for us.
In the semidarkness I transform the gallery/hamman into an exotic movie theater that doesn’t turn its lights completely off. Reagan and Meese flicker on the screen wearing turbans and carrying elaborate scimitars. Suleyman could be a hero to them, he doubled the Ottoman Empire during his reign. To my amateur eye, even the lettering on the pages from rare books is a mysterious sign of a complex society I know little about, and at moments like these I take in Yogi Berra’s dictum: “Sometimes you can see a lot just by looking.” Suleyman’s portable throne, made of walnut and inlaid with ivory, ebony and mother of pearl, was carried to battles, where it was set up in the royal tent. It always accompanied him. The throne looks uncomfortable, an appropriate seat from which to direct a war, I suppose, and the way I see Suleyman sitting on it is straight out of the movies. Yul Brynner.
SAN FRANCISCO: I’m very comfortable just sitting around hotel lobbies or reading in a friend’s rooms. People say, “You might as well be home,” and without friends I might never venture out, even though I think of myself as a person with curiosity. Once I’m someplace new, however, I do get interested. My friends, also transients, have rented a car for a day trip up the cost to the Unknown Museum in Mill Valley. I used to get carsick, but now I can travel for hours as long as I’m in the backseat. Occasionally the driver, who lives in London, wonders whether she’s on the right side of the road, and only this mars ever so slightly a perfect kind of day. Blue sky, sun shining, fluffy white clouds.
The Unknown Museum, a house of popular culture, is situated in a suburb alongside other similar houses that are used residentially. It’s artist Mickey McGowan’s creation, and he’s around the place, a kind of host to a kind of house. The house of memories, it might be called, with bathroom scales leading out of the kitchen, past the refrigerator, to the backyard: a very American memory lane. McGowan has collected American ephemera from the past 40 or 50 years and arranged it so that each room maintains its original function. The arrangements fill the room as much with metaphors as memory and objects; it’s a lost-and-found, or pound, for so-called trivia. The girl’s room: a life-sized model bride lying flat on her face on a rug of uncooked rice. The boy’s room: war games, toy soldiers, chemistry sets, test tubes. In the living room, where a book rack is filled with lurid ‘40s and ‘50s paperbacks, there’s a TV which is used as a display case for atomic energy info from the ‘50s. A stack of lunch boxes, from every children’s TV show you could think of, comprises a column in the kitchen. A model mom lies on the bed in the master bedroom, her hair in curlers, a hair dryer with plastic bouffant hood close by. There’s Barbie. There’s The Flintstones.
McGowan’s arrangements are deliberate, and sometimes I resented it, the artfulness; it interfered with an unmediated look into the past made up of toys, games, gadgets and objects that usually get thrown away. On the other hand, there is no such thing as an unmediated past, and that someone has retrieved so much of what’s considered junk, but which later generations will in part characterize this culture by, is valuable. A layer of civilization from an archaeologist’s point of view, something I consider reassuring. Seeing all this stuff around seemed natural, a landscape, I understood, an environment conjured by and contained within its cultural products. And the silliest piece means something simply because one remembers it, has lived with it and has associations to it. My madeleine for the day turned out to be a Roy Rogers lunch box. Happy trails to you, too.
What you don’t see, you begin to bring back, remembering a toy that isn’t there, which then makes you realize how much lies just below the surface of consciousness, recalled by a pink plastic toy handbag or those wacky pet rocks. Also, I think later, riding in the back seat of the car, if this is a museum for commodity, and if our social relations exist in each object, then what’s unknown here must be, apart from what one forgets, the labor behind each commodity. This work is always forgotten, making this into a museum, maybe the first, but probably not the last, that pays tribute to the fetishism of the commodity.
The Luther Burbank House
SANTA ROSA, CALIFORNIA: One engages expectation and perception just as readily in spaces designated for art as in those that aren’t. The Luther Burbank house and garden, a museum of sorts, has been preserved as it was when he lived there, and it’s the major tourist attraction in the area. His name is, if not a household word, familiar, and saying it over and over, I get a picture of someone like Frederic March in a white coat, playing a hearty country doctor. Burbank’s name is vaguely associated in my mind with fruit. But this, I find out, doesn’t even glimpse the man. Not that anything could, I suppose. From the East originally, he made his name and fortune in the West. An anarchist, a self-taught botanist, a free-thinker in all sorts of ways (his wife, 40 years younger, never remarried, because, to paraphrase her words, no man could ever equal him), a celebrity in his time, Burbank’s great achievements include inventing the russet potato, splicing 526 different kinds of apples onto one tree and developing a daisy that didn’t smell. In his preserved backyard there is a large patch of these daisies and I bend down to sniff some. It’s hard not to be impressed with a mind that’s challenged to deodorize nature—though other forms of tampering with nature are perhaps more impressive—as well as one that can also think of a way to make a living from it. An eminently practical approach to life spliced itself onto the visionary and turned Burbank into the gardener of the world, as he was once called, rather than, say, an artist. An artist satisfies herself or himself with a more circumscribed piece of the world, the world of representations, whereas Burbank’s vision is directed toward what we call the real world. Looked at through this frame, if the garden is his canvas, is he the van Gogh of the Real? Driving away from Burbank’s house with my friends, we discuss the fact that this man of seed and his adorning wife had no children. This has all sorts of implications. I mail a packet of souvenir flower seeds to my mother, who used to have a garden and will probably have her own memories of Luther Burbank.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA: Some people go north in the fall to watch the leaves turn; I go south to watch them cling. Hearty breakfasts of grits and biscuits, and a motel that looks pretty much the way it did when it was built in the 1950s, set you up for a trip into the past. But unlike Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married, which are like anthems to that recent past, restored houses or villages are more like theme parks, where America’s history is an everyday celebration. Jefferson’s Monticello, especially in the Constitution’s bicentennial this year, is thepièce de résistance of American historical kitsch. The house reminds me of a savings bank I once bought in Texas which was in the form of the Bible. Here, long lines of people pay their way into something sacred. At five bucks a head, Monticello must be a profitmaking institution, which might have pleased its industrious designer and resident.
I linger in front of the graves of Jefferson, his mother and the Levy family that bought Monticello from Jefferson and saved it for posterity. Although, I’m told by insiders, because the Levys were Jewish, this fact has been obscured over the years. To me, this fact seems to symbolize the cracks and contradictions in the democracy that the enlightened slaveholder Jefferson helped build and which might have also been contained in his own character. Jefferson, like Burbank, was an inventor, a gadgeteer. His photograph machine makes a copy of whatever’s being written, a kind of arm attached to the writer’s pen that moves along with it. He also made labor-saving devices, like a dumbwaiter, and designed a bed in a wall that he could get out of from either side, depending upon whether he wanted to go to his office or not. As I don’t go into the house, I see all these objects through the windows, as well as my own reflection staring back at me.
Sitting on the lawn, next to what was once Jefferson’s working farm, I gaze out at the view, the Virginia Piedmont farmlands to the east, the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. The pamphlet, given free by the historical society that runs Monticello, makes no mention of the Levys or of the black mistress and children Jefferson is supposed to have had. I walk back to the slave quarters, and discover that in Charlottesville they’re called servants’ quarters. A sanitized version of the past, then, not so different from period movies, and as mighty a fantasy as any that Edgar Allan Poe might have written.
Poe attended the University of Virginia, Mr. Jefferson’s university as it’s called here, and late at night, having drunk quite a lot of champagne, I tiptoe onto campus to the eerie and beautiful quad where his room has been maintained as it was when he was a student. It’s hard not to compare the myths about these two famous men: one, the brilliant writer who died in a gutter; the other, the “great man,” who almost singlehandedly gave us democracy. What’s left to support their images are tracts and stories, as much open to interpretation today as they were originally. But today little ambiguity remains—these histories are packed for public consumption and memory as inert rooms and houses. Which reminds me of a recent piece in the New York Times. Under the headline “A Patriotic Halloween,” it reported that parents in Louisville, Colorado, were worried about the “dark side” of Halloween and were banning traditional Halloween activities and making the day a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Constitution. This neatly merges one idea of Poe and Jefferson, I think to myself.
War and Memory
WASHINGTON, D.C.: I marched, walked really, in the Gay Rights Parade, reported the day after by the Washington Post as being nearly as large as the March on the Pentagon in 1969 (600,000), and by the New York Times as numbering about 200,000. History in the making. A lot of jubilation and every imaginable kind of organization from almost every state. Parents’ groups. ACT-UP. Psychologists. Conservationists. Feminists. Gay liberation groups from everywhere. There was a great moment when in front of the White House men in leather, from the Eulenspiegel Society, saluted a policeman in leather who stood by on horseback. He returned the salute and smiled.
The next day my friend and I run from one exhibition to another, seeing the capital in the way it seems to have been designed, as a town of enormous holding bins for information (and the ever-present disinformation). At WPA (Washington Project for the Arts) is an exhibition called “War and Memory: In the Aftermath of Vietnam.” It seems fitting to be here after having marched the day before, when one had the sense of having participated in something that will also become part of living memory, if one lives long enough. The show is organized by many groups, a “multidisciplinary program of visual art, installations, photography, film, video, literature, theater, music and discussion.”
Several of the photographic works (Wendy Watriss, Sal Lopes and Lloyd Wolf) “document” the Vietnam Memorial, the Wall. Shots of people touching the engraved names, single flowers and wreaths, men hugging each other, children, women, and men crying. Images like these have been reproduced so often in the last few years they are already part of the national family album, like the photograph of the riderless horse in JFK’s funeral procession. There’s one installation (Richard Posner) about having been a conscientious objector during the war and another (Richard Turner) that fabricates a cemetery/hotel lobby in Saigon, which necessarily refers to the war’s “other” side. A kind of altar, Nancy Floyd’s memorial installation to her brother, James, consists of his “effects,” dog tags, letters home from Nam, pictures, the remnants of lost life. The show is sobering, and the exhilaration of yesterday’s march disappears.
Affecting as some of the work is, the absence of political analysis of the war the U.S. lost is more disturbing. How to distinguish Vietnam from any other war? Nothing much was made of the opportunity to work with the changing representations of the war in the past 20 years, nearly 30 years. From vicious, deranged killer, as in Taxi Driver, the Vietnam vet has been transformed into heroic and misunderstood victim, as in, for example, Platoon. Which means Vietnam isn’t contained within that past moment, with its present “effects” being the attendant sadness and loss that wars inevitably bring. Competing representations—of the vet then and now, for example—deserve analysis precisely because the interpretation of the war’s meaning has real effects today. Are U.S. political aims so different today, one might reasonably ask oneself? I try to imagine a toy soldier display of a battle in Vietnam. On exhibit at the Palais Mendoub. I feel as if I am thinking the unthinkable. But instead of thinking about Herman Kahn, I’m thinking about a multimillionaire with a toy soldier collection. Depressing as that is.
We continue our march around Washington and head for the Hirshhorn Museum, to a retrospective of the English painter Lucian Freud. His depressing paintings stare back at me, a distorting mirror, and shake me into a different mood. I wonder what Sigmund Freud would think of his grandson’s work, portraits of tortured women and men. To me, they look like concentration camp victims, victims of the same Nazism that forced the elder Freud to flee Vienna, and something he might have imagined his most pessimistic moments, but didn’t live to see.
Museum of Natural History
NEW YORK: I hadn’t been in the Museum of Natural History for years and years, respecting it as if it were a preserve for children. Kids are supposed to love dinosaurs. I can’t remember if I did or not. I do remember digging for China in our backyard. But I’m fascinated by the notions of the prehistoric. Whether its Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “Two Thousand Year Old Man” or dioramas showing the Neanderthal man in his, or her, natural habitat. An exhibition titled “Dinosaurs Past and Present” immediately attracted me, as I wondered what a “present dinosaur” would be. But the present dinosaurs turned out to be drawings of dinosaurs by various artists. The exhibition was supposed to show how that kind of art depends upon scientific discoveries. A drawing by Charles Knight in 1901 of a stegosaurus, a caption says, was greatly improved upon, in terms of authenticity, by Stephen Czerkas in 1961. Knight drew his stegosaurus for 50 years, which is a most unfamiliar obsession. Another dino artist, Ron Seguin, the caption says, became a taxidermist because of his love for animals. This made me consider embalmers in a different light.
As I strolled through the Halls of Man I pondered a statement about dino artist Robert Baker: it said that when he saw Rudolph Zallinger’s famous “Age of Reptiles” mural at Yale, he knew instantly that his destiny was with dinosaurs. I rushed back to find the Zallinger mural and luckily there was a copy on display. I stood in front of it, hoping for one brief moment to feel what Baker did. I’m looking at it: it’s a fairy-tale landscape of prehistoric animals. Beautiful vibrant colors. But all I can think of is Victor Mature in that film One Million B.C. Except that was in black and white. But it was my most vivid introduction to dinosaurs. And to Victor Mature. As I walk to the subway I’m struck again by other people’s epiphanies. I’ve read about them over the years in biographies of artists and writers. These people know and see clearly, and their lives are set out in front of them in one brilliant flash of light. Will that ever happen to me, I ask myself, searching for a subway token?
The Forbes Museum
NEW YORK: The Forbes Museum on lower Fifth Avenue is another of Malcolm Forbes’s residences, as well as the place where Forbes magazine is produced, and it occupies ground that once was home to New York’s oldest families. “Old money”: these are the people who made their fortunes before the Industrial Revolution, the people Edith Wharton descended from and about whom she wrote so brilliantly and disturbingly. The Forbes family is new money, as are most of the rich in this country, and two coexistent exhibitions at the Forbes Museum are oddly telling in relation to the family, their money, position and ambitions.
In the presidential election year, the family is “sharing with the public,” as the elder Forbes puts it, their collection of presidential autographs, photographs, posters and memorabilia of all kinds and from both parties. Titled “And If Elected: Two Hundred Years of Presidential Elections: An Exhibition for the 1988 Election Year,” the exhibition is filled to bursting with historic documents and trivia. On display is Malcolm Forbes’s ex-wife Roberta’s dress, a white cotton number from the ‘50s with red IKEs printed all over it. There are political posters of FDR, JFK, Teddy Roosevelt; drawings and doodles from Eisenhower and JFK; rare presidential letters; campaign buttons bearing names famous and forgotten, the also-rans. Here and there the Forbes family is represented: pictures of them with political figures; letters to Malcolm from presidents. One of Malcolm’s own campaign posters—he ran for governor in New Jersey, and lost—hangs on a wall near ones for Teddy Roosevelt and FDR (a picture of a rose with the word “velt” beneath it). The ghost of Edith Wharton haunts me as I wander through these rooms: with her on my shoulder I see new money laying claim to America’s past, placing itself in history, and in this instance attempting to shape it, not only through ownership but through representation and presentation.
In the smallest rooms are the collection’s “most unique and important Presidential acquisitions.” There’s also a TV monitor with a tape of Malcolm Forbes being interviewed by his youngest son, Timothy, publisher of American Heritage—the magazine that the Forbes bought not so long ago (and under whose auspices this exhibition is mounted). These acquisitions include Matthew Brady’s photograph of Abraham Lincoln and his ten-year-old son Tad, taken shortly before Lincoln was assassinated, and a rare first edition of Thomas Jefferson’s only book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Next to President Truman’s famous latter attacking Paul Hume, the music critic who attacked the musicianship of his daughter, Margaret, sits the diary kept by a crew member of the Enola Gay. The Enola Gay was the plane that carried the men who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The positioning is curious, and as I’m staring at the Enola Gay logbook, I hear Malcolm Forbes on the videotape that he thinks of this diary as “human documentation.” Human documentation of an event inhuman in its effects placed next to Truman’s all too-human letter defending his daughter. Side by side we share these pieces of evidence—awesome and awful presidential power and a president’s personal tantrum. It’s often said that position is everything in life. In an exhibition position is, if not everything, almost everything; objects very obviously “mean” in relation to what’s around them, how they’re arranged. Is this positioning a bad joke on the part of the curators? Or a bit of irony? Talk about irony—I discover that the plane was named after Paul Tibbet’s mother, “the former Enola Gay Haggard.”
Haggard mother indeed, I think as I cross over the hall to a show called “Chairman’s Choice: A Miscellany of American Paintings,” a personal selection made by Malcolm Forbes from the family’s art collection. On TV and to the press, the senior Forbes disarms with his eagerness to talk turkey—money—at the drop of the hat. He’s happy and unselfconscious. True to form, he’s written a statement introducing his choices, and placed it at the entryway to the show. “Art is a many splendored thing…Vigorous differences and preferences make for horse races and stock market gyrations. They account for the total gamut that art collections run…When I was young…my father used to say to me, ‘Son, I have enough money for three square meals for the rest of my life. The money you want to spend in great measure is your own.’ What’s on these walls is one fellow’s joy. And we’ll enjoy them even more if you do too.” There aren’t many collector’s who’d so gladly and boldly conflate their esthetic choices with money.
The painting of a dollar sign that Andy Warhol presented to Malcolm on one of his birthdays (is Warhol telling us that money is not “no object”?), which eventually was used as a cover for Forbes, hangs diagonally across from one of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington. Stuart did 22. This one, the placard under it reads, is the image of Washington that appears on the dollar bill. Going clockwise around the gallery, one finds landscapes, like Thomas Hart Benton’s Chilmark Hay (1930). Bringing Edith Wharton back to mind again is The Silvery City, by Guy Wiggins (1925). It’s a view of the First Presbyterian Building on Fifth Avenue with the Forbes building in the background. It’s snowing, a white Christmas kind of scene. The painting allows the curators the opportunity to tell us something about the building we’re standing in: it’s designed by Carrere and Hastings, the same architects who built the Empire State Building, the Frick Museum and the New York Public Library.
A lackluster Hopper called Hotel Window (1956)—a woman in a red hat and dress looking out a window-introduces work of a sexual nature. Paul Cadmus’s sexy Sailors and Floosies (1938) is surrounded by a number of nudes, including Nude on a Sofa by Howard Chandler Christy (1933) and Walter Stuempfig’s Voltaire and Apollo (1948), in which a young boy sleeps in a chair while an older man watches, himself just a reflection in a mirror. Nearly at the entryway, which is now the exit, in a 1982 Andrew Wyeth called Roll Call, in which the flag waves again—after all that bawdy stuff—and a drummer boy beats his drum. Until I looked at the date, I thought it was one hundred years old.
Walking around the room again, I’m stopped by the Warhol dollar sign which is placed above a painting by James Bama titled A Sioux Indian (1977). The S-like figure on the Indian’s Superman shirt parallels the dollar sign itself. To what end, I ask myself, wondering about the curators and exigencies of hanging work of such diversity. I begin to image a writer’s conference for the David Letterman show (on which Malcolm has appeared), where a cutesy skit might be thought up to fill time when a better one just didn’t work. One the other hand, with money and power, with position, with a mythical Superman behind them, the American Indians might not today be suffering a startling number of suicides on reservations. Or there might not even be reservation. But this is probably not what the curators intended. What’s intended is a celebration of a private collection of American art and a celebration of America.
I walk past the First Presbyterian Church thinking about the two exhibitions and I’m struck by the idea that if you can’t get elected to public office, as the Kennedy’s have, you can buy art and get on the boards of worthy cultural institutions. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted just such behavior from America’s wealthy dynastic families in search of tradition. He didn’t predict the lengths to which Joe Kennedy, Sr., went, however, and a letter on display in the presidential collection is immediately committed to memory. Joe Senior told his son John, “Don’t buy one vote more than is necessary…I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”
By the time I get to Eighth Street, I’m wondering if I should go shopping, although I usually hate to. Unless I know exactly what I want, the abundance of things confuses me. I don’t think I could be a collector, not in any systemic way, although I find it hard to throw things out. Especially since I’m convinced that every little scrap of paper has meaning. Perhaps Malcolm Forbes makes his choices with a great deal of anxiety. Although with the money he has, when he can buy whatever he wants, what does choice mean? It’s depressing to think that either choices mean nothing or one doesn’t have any choices at all. I can’t face shopping, with all its false promises. I head home thinking about campaign promises and campaign purses. How much does a landslide cost? I take out a dollar for the subway and think of Warhol’s painting. It reminds me of what a friend once said, years ago, to a guy who dismissed Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can painting as stupid. He said, “What you expect to see there is just as stupid.”