When I was 18 I took the 6 train to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from near where I lived by Union Square, paid $0.25 and proceeded to cry, weep, just lose it in front of a Cezanne painting of a house through tree branches. It reminded me of my childhood spent in the woods. Fresh memories surfaced of the safety of the forest, the damp smell of the ground, and the anchor of an inert house in the distance. To me, the painting teeters on amateur. It is not quite the cubist masterpiece of Cezanne’s other work and the work that followed him. The trees are shabby and incomplete in the frame. The colors are not even very striking. Tonally it is like staring into a pile of dead autumn leaves. I imagined myself, symbolically out of the house and in the forest, making a trail of my own in a cement landscape, when all I wanted was to stare into a dead pile of leaves for the rest of time. To smell their slightly rotten musk beneath. To feel the undulations of dirt under my feet.
The Met felt safe and tight around me. The complete enclosure of the artwork embraced me like an oily and melancholic mother, the cost of whose love was essentially free, and whose halls were full of harmless zombies, suffocating from lack of oxygen flow and wandering in circles. I grew up with parents who were artists and spent most of my time, when we went to cities, in museums. I felt safe enough there to let go and often left wiping tears from my eyes. My twenties remain a second childhood, except this time there is very little in terms of guideposts, and people aren’t paid to “set me in the right direction” through school or by any other institutional means. Which is a good thing, but confusing and also requiring of a good amount of backbone which, for some reason I missed out on developing back when I was a real kid.
A few years later, Frida Kahlo looked at me sideways with a monkey on her shoulder. I had a down jacket tucked into my arm and an overstuffed bag on my shoulder. My feet grew sweaty in my large winter boots: visiting the scandinavian family in Minneapolis over the holidays. I was a woman, and also, not all feminine. I was a woman and nothing about my public body felt comfortable or right. Not since I hit puberty and not then. I would venture to say that every woman must unlearn despising her body and live in it fully, without shame. At 23, I was coming to terms with this physical self and everything else I had graduated from and was moving towards. And the world felt dark. But it may also have been a winter night.
I was familiar with Frida Kahlo. I knew the strong colors, the beautifully intimate frames where she contemplated nuggets of her life and experience. Each one was in fascination with her own figure and face as subject that seemed to bring into stark clarity a sort of narrative.
My family was spread throughout the gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art while I ambled behind. The permission Kahlo gave to mixing ecstatic color with personal pain, the courageous expressions of her shifting sense of self seemed to sink into me like a dose of medicine. The entanglements of plant and animal life that overtook the canvases. The askance gaze in her eye felt simultaneously frank and enchanting. The power gave me power the feeling of which didn’t wear off for several months.
This is the beauty of art, that it has the potential to communicate with our emotions with such complexity that it feels mystical. And while the artwork and the interaction with the artwork is personal, the politics and collectivity around artwork is fundamental in its creation. The artist then adopts collective social pains and anxieties, their narrative is marketed as culturally emblematic. In the sorry narratives of their lives, artists are portrayed as drunk, poor, with mental disabilities, with addictive personalities, helplessly possessed by their creative pursuits. And so, Kahlo’s narrative, as with many, is dappled with illness, pain, and genius quirkiness that fuel her and give her more legitimacy as an artist. As if this way of being is somehow unique.
The museum is awry. It is manipulating my emotions and running out of oxygen (I believe the reason why people get so tired.) Museums are melancholy heavens. Melancholy, as La Mar Jurelle Bruce, explains as pertaining to music in his essay Interludes in Madtime, is cyclic. While he describes music here, the same movement occurs in museums, the nostalgic returning, spiraling to some mythic time in which the work was produced. At their core, museums are tragic examples of colonization as well as toxic artistic celebrity under the guise of preservation. Museums are places where artwork goes to die. The pieta like a mummy in the corner. A sad matisse up on sharp white wall, the color escaping into the lights above. And by that time I can barely even look at the painting I am so ready to eat and drink water, and would much rather lie in the grass somewhere.
Across the stoney bridge from the Met, a show just closed at the Brooklyn Museum that I didn’t see. It consisted of Frida Kahlo’s “clothing and medical objects:” A surgical deconstruction of Kahlo through her illness, through fashion, accessories, and photographs that obsess over her “realness.” In an interview with the curators, Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa, they awe over the naturalness of her stone jewelry, the nativeness of her biology that gives her real pain and struggle. I am not trying to take away from the facts of Kahlo’s life that she worked through, or didn’t work through in her artwork. But I argue that her life and her feelings about her life are her own. What is to be found under a microscope of Kahlo’s belongings, but old Revlon nail polish?
Ultimately, I deviate from artistry being an outcome of suffering, and that we must pay the devil in order to have the kind of legacy she had, the way Robert Johnson, the mythical father of what became blues and rock and roll, did. The trite story takes away from the expression of her artwork and places her into a role in which she appears to be a Latina manic pixie dream girl. Just incapable of “fitting in” to being a ridiculously boring and unreal “normal.” As if no one dressed up to take photographs. As if no one wore jewelry from their native country. As if no one had a troubled marriage and opened it up, or had extramarital affairs. Give it up for yourselves, people, you are just as wonderful, plagued, and blessed as Frida was. Your pain is just as worthy of feeling, and expressing. Your feelings have bright colors. We don’t need an exhibit of this.
And the fad didn’t begin at the Brooklyn Museum. Frida Kahlo has bloomed like the million flowers on her canvases. Her face is everywhere from socks, to pens, and iphone cases. Kahlo is meticulously commodified.
Lately the Brooklyn Museum has made a point of focusing on people of color, women, and LGBTQIA artists and subjects, several rigid tick marks that Kahlo theoretically falls under. But there are other Mexican artists. There are other ways to create art encounters that are meaningful to contemporary culture that dance forward while looking back. To feed on Kahlo as a marketable object is not art, and it isn’t interesting. As an alternative, imagine a show about the ways in which Mexican artists are working with surrealism now and weave in some Kahlo pieces as inspiration. This world is rich rich. Let Frida Kahlo have a voice outside of her objects. We don’t need proof of her pain or her “nativeness” to coo over at the museum store.
Consumerism attempts to be mystical here when it is not mystical at all. This show simply takes Frida apart as a person of color, as a person experimenting with expressions of gender, as a disabled person. The celebrity of painters is tangential and completely irrelevant to the issues that are going on in the moment, it may in fact, do the museum good to reconsider their entire mission. For now the fact is Kahlo is a safe commodity.
I had a head cold in Rome when I met Edith Schloss. She was a painter who came up in the New York School of Painters, and was friends with the likes of Cy Twombly and Joseph Cornell. Her apartment was full of artwork of her friends, and family, and her own works. The apartment located, maybe in the mid-southeast section of the city, was narrow with tall ceilings in dark wood. Schloss led us to her bedroom where she opened a closet where she kept a file of her newest work that she had to reach up on a stool to take down. It was a large expanse of paper lightly toned with layers of watercolor, and two gods embracing in the air. Then she made us tea and considered the craft of Botticelli.
You don’t have to be friends with famous painters to have meaningful experiences with color, with framing. Schloss could have just as easily been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. But, like Schloss, who worked well into her 90’s, understood who her family was. She understood and grew with the likes of Botticelli, of Cy Twombly. This was her chosen family.
I don’t know how museums should look anymore. But this is not working. Museums seem to be the location where art, study, and capitalism intersect. Or should I say, clash? Or should I say implode? I can’t seem to go to museums without feeling uncomfortable over the loss of the art there. The life withers under the microscope of gazes. What I want to say is that art has deep and profound possibilities outside of museums and socks.