On Wednesday, May 4, 2022, as I procrastinated the completion of revisions for the second draft of my novel in the basement of the Vassar College library, to which I frequently resorted as a respite from my somewhat challenging life in Beacon, New York, where I’d moved with my wife Sarah and our children Sam and Paul in February, I discovered in the course of perusing the online offerings of the New York Review of Books that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was exhibiting a show of the drawings of the artist Jacques-Louis David, scheduled to close on May 15.
During what would turn out to be my final year in New Orleans, while pandemic restrictions continued to linger, I’d conceived a powerful passion to visit the Met, which came to stand as a talisman for all of the culture that was not available to me in Louisiana; but although we’d moved to the Hudson Valley over three months ago and Beacon was on the Metro-North line, I still hadn’t managed to make the excursion into Manhattan, primarily on account of the complexities of childcare, as well as the expense of train travel since we found ourselves penniless several times.
I’d also been wanting to meet up with Matvei, a rendezvous for which this exhibit appeared to furnish the perfect occasion, so I texted first from the library to ask had he seen the show yet and then, when the message failed to transmit from the concrete depths of the library, resent it sitting in the car parked on a side street off campus to evade parking tickets, before my departure to collect Sam from day care in East Fishkill, on time, thus avoiding the twenty-five dollar late assessment with which we’d been threatened if I arrived after 4:30pm again.
Consulting the message log on my phone I find Matvei replied the same day that he hadn’t seen the David show and we should try to attend, possibly on Friday, May 13, the day before my family was set to depart for a family vacation to Cape Cod at a rental house in Cataumet in honor of my wife’s sister Kate’s graduation from law school at Northeastern University in Boston, to which I texted back that this date was perfect and it was on my calendar, and by the way what would be a convenient time of day to meet?
Even before I heard back from Matvei I had started to conceive a writing project based on this prospective visit to the museum, along the lines of Bruce Boone’s Bay Area cult classic My Walk with Bob, listed for sale used no cheaper than $38 on abebooks.com and present neither in Vassar’s holdings nor included in the recent Nightboat anthology Bruce Boone Dismembered, which had occasioned a 2020 BOMB interview with Evan Kennedy I hadn’t previously seen but sat down to read that day as the links between many apparently disparate things started to thicken like butter in the churn.
A new project had started to stir when I visited Vassar’s art museum with my older son Sam, who seated on my shoulders looked with me at their remarkable holdings, including one of Francis Bacon’s popes modeled on the portrait of Velasquez’s Innocent X at the Doria Gallery in Rome, which according to art-world folklore the Irish painter refused to ever inspect in person but only studied via the numerous photographic reproductions he kept in his studio, along with medical illustrations of oral diseases and stills of the woman with broken glasses from the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Potemkin.
Since I was in the final stages of my novel, I was open to intuitions about another writing project, as I knew I’d want to start on something new directly, if only to keep myself entertained and to keep the channels of creativity open, so that when I remembered while examining the Bacon canvas how the narrator Atzbacher, in Thomas Bernard’s novel Old Masters, recounts the musicologist Reger’s regular vigil in the Bordone Room of Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum over the course of thirty years before Tintoretto’s Portrait of a Man with a White Beard, I thought I might have something.
My initial conceit was that I’d seat myself in front of this Bacon, as Reger had before Tintoretto, and make writing there; either iteratively, over the course of a series of sessions whose number would be determined, in the end, by the duration of my residence in proximity to Vassar, or else during a single sitting when I might fill an entire notebook in a few hours of work, as I had on Independence Day 2017 at a Peet’s in El Cerrito, near Brandon and Alli’s place on Belmont, while writing my essay on Scenes of Life at the Capital.
But when I read about the David show, and then had the inspiration to use it as an occasion to finally get to the Met and meet up with Matvei, my prior notion, inspired by Bernhard’s Old Masters, of sitting in front of Bacon’s pope at Vassar, fused with this new concept of composing a text about our prospective mid-May excursion, before the exhibition closed, as a method of reflecting, in the manner of Boone’s My Walk with Bob, on painting, time, friendship, and writing, and to discover in the process what else might find its way into the work.
To further prepare for our museum visit and my writing project, I rose from that basement carrel off special collections, near English and American literature, which I’d come to think of as “mine,” and rode a narrow rickety elevator to ground level, from which I could navigate my way to the art library, in whose nethermost stack I scanned over surprisingly meager holdings on David and selected, first, an illustrated paperback Phaidon monograph by Simon Lee with autobiographical focus and good color reproductions, and then Radical Draftsman, the Met show’s catalogue, which, lucky for me, Vassar’s library had already obtained.
I’d already begun reflecting on David’s apparent and notorious political opportunism, from regicide Jacobin to Napoleonic suckup, as laid out in the introduction of the Phaidon book, when my wife and I, with our sons Sam and Paul in tow, set out that Saturday for a visit to the Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church’s estate Olana, near Hudson, New York, in the company of her father Joe, who was visiting for the weekend from Reno as part of an east coast trip he’d undertaken to celebrate his younger daughter Kate’s graduation from law school at Northeastern in Boston.
I explained to Joe, who’d requested that we play “Olana” by “Walking in Memphis” singer Marc Cohn off of Spotify on Sarah’s phone during the hourlong drive up Highway 87 past New Paltz, Kingston, and Saugerties, that we had vainly attempted the month before to visit this famously eclectic Orientalist house and its rolling estate with spectacular views of the river and the Catskills, which I’d gone to as a teenager during a dimly-remembered high school field-trip, during our family’s visit to the town of Hudson, but were told at the office that tickets were sold out for the day.
This time, forewarned, we’d called in advance to reserve our tickets, and waited in the sun sharing a bottle of water by the cluster of docents until it was time for our tour, which at first looked like it might be limited to just our family until some late-arriving daytrippers from New York City joined us just as we were departing, to proceed up the path towards the marvelously stenciled house the front door of which was surmounted by a triangular transom window whose cut-paper and painted ornamentation, pressure-fit between two pieces of glass reads مرحباً , “welcome,” in Arabic.
Our elderly guide, whose name I cannot recall, did not write down, and am unable to retrieve anywhere online, guided us through the vestibule and into the east parlor, where he discoursed knowledgably on the decorative elements as well as the many paintings on the light grey walls, before we proceeded to the central Court Hall with its profusion of Orientalist bric-a-brac and curtained proscenium in front of the stairs to facilitate amateur performances which, our guide explained, were a customary entertainment, since Frederic Church requested any guest with a skill or talent provide after-dinner entertainment for the assembled household.
From there the docent led our little group to the sitting room dominated by Church’s canvas “El Khasne, Petra,” a view through a cleft of that rose-red city half as old as time which the painter visited in 1868 during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and which had been described by Europeans only forty years previously, when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, travelling under the name Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah, explored the Nabataean town after hearing that it contained the tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses, and high priest of the Israelite people, who’d been responsible for creating the golden calf.
After the sitting room we exited to the piazza and assumed the view Church had prepared for us by siting the house precisely here, a prospect which included the Hudson’s bend and Catskills beyond as well as the Rip Van Winkle Bridge built thirty-five years after the painter’s death, whereupon our family diverted Sam from the tour to Olana’s front lawn, with grandpa Joe as caretaker, since it’s a stressful distraction to keep a two-year-old from touching antique objects – for example, the original library volumes, which remained shelved exactly where the Church family had placed them over a century before.
In the studio, where the painter’s brushes lay as he’d left them, I noticed an advertisement for Aetna Insurance, the source of Church’s family wealth, depicting a volcanic eruption, and realized for the first time a fact that had previously escaped my attention – that the firm was named for the notorious Sicilian volcano, one of the world’s most active, about which Vergil wrote in the Aeneid that huge crags of itself, out of the bowels of the mountain torn, its maw disgorges, while the molten rock rolls screaming skyward; from the nether deep the fathomless abyss makes ebb and flow.
After a glance at the furniture upstairs, a shuffle through servants’ quarters, and a passage through the dining room with its walls covered by mostly misattributed Old Masters (though our guide assured us there was one tiny work cut from an altarpiece that was certainly from Perugino’s hand), Sarah and I emerged back outside on the lawn, where, Joe told us, he had noticed some kind of a Secret Service team, complete with earpieces, only a few moments before, while he’d been chasing Sam around in circles, an activity which invariably resulted in the kid falling down and laughing hysterically.
I asked a cluster of docents near the gift shop if they’d had some kind of special guest that day, and one replied that Olana had been visited by the governor, Kathy Hochul, who’d served as lieutentant governor since 2014 and had acceded to the higher office only the year before, following the resignation of Andrew Cuomo, the so-called “love gov,” whose father Mario, now the namesake of that new bridge linking Tarrytown and Nyack across the Tappan Zee, had been the governor of New York when I was a teen, in the wake of repeated allegations of sexual misconduct.
Since our drive home to Beacon from Olana would take us past Saugerties and Woodstock, I prevailed upon the adults to join me in making a long-contemplated pilgrimage to Big Pink, the house on 56 Parnassus Lane whose nickname had provided the title to the Band’s 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink, which had been the site of the recording of dozens of songs with Bob Dylan later bootlegged, covered, commercially released, and mythologized as “The Basement Tapes,” and which now rented on VRBO for $688 a night (which, the listing specified, did not include access to the basement).
12 August, 2022