Monday, May 9, 2011

Tender Buttons and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We began the day at Tender Buttons, a tiny shop, perhaps 3 metres wide, just off Lexington.  Improbably, there are four people who work here, one tiny sixty-something blonde dynamo with her hair in an elegant French twist; another women in her sixties with chin-length curly gray hair; an older man who I suspect drinks too much but who does up your parcel in a most intriguing way, folding the top of the tiny paper bag like origami so the buttons don‘t fall out; and a young Asian man wearing one of the brightest things in the shop:  a turquoise T-shirt.  When the courier came in to drop off the weekend delivery, he greeted each of them by name and wished the chap in the T-shirt a happy mother’s day. 

You can see from the photographs that there are more buttons here than you’ve seen everywhere else.  One woman was there to buy antique buttons and dropped nearly $300 for them.  Another couple was in, he with a shirt and she with a brocade jacket, looking for something that would match (in his case) or replace (in hers) buttons that had been lost.  In sped-up weekend New York, people take time here.  You have no choice.  We found what we were looking for:  buttons for sweaters that Veronica, her friend Jenny, and I are making.  I wonder what it would have said about us if we hadn’t found the perfect button.

We spent the next nearly seven hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we did not see Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein (which ordinarily lives, I think, at MoMA).  That bit of serendipity might have been a bit too much to ask, even of New York City.  In spite of the fact that they closed late on Saturday, so we had until nearly 9 p.m., we had to make fairly rigorous choices.  I can’t really summarize the art for you, can perhaps barely describe its effect on me.  We looked at contemporary American and European art, standing stunned by the reality of Georgia O’Keefe’s too-well-reproduced canvases.  Her is a woman who paints flowers, but there is nothing polite or cute or pretty about them; they are strong statements about her and about the world she lives in.  We saw Picasso in all his incarnations:  it’s amazing that he had so many entirely different styles, and yet that they claim your attention all the way across the room.  We sat stunned by Mark Rothko’s ability to get colour and all its subtlety to speak to a part of us we have no idea we can lay claim to.  We went to a special exhibition documenting the progress and genre of Cezanne’s “Card Players.”  I didn't know that card-playing was so well represented in art, usually underlining and critiquing the rowdy immoral side of playing cards.  Cezanne, well beyond morals, liked the men he depicted, studying each of them over a number of years before painting the two canvases that are his full appreciation, in Meyer Shapiro’s words of “Four men playing collective solitaire.” They reflect back to us the thought we put into them; in this frozen moment they are provocatively opaque.

Of course we spent hours among the Met’s enormous Impressionist collection.  I particularly love Monet, who depicts a world of water and light (even when he’s painting the Houses of Parliament or haystacks in snow) that shows how easily the world before us might dissolve and become something entirely different; he reminds us that the substance of the world is mysterious.  Veronica loves Cezanne (as do I) who has the opposite effect.  If you could take his fruit off the canvas, they would have heft in your hand.  An exhibition of small nineteenth-century paintings examined the genre of the open window that sometimes spoke of dreamy possibilities, sometimes was the only light in a painter’s studio.  Rembrandt catches the mystery of the human face’s ability to accrue and express experience.  Vermeer’s everydayness is completely comforting, though the maps that are often pinned to the wall behind the young woman with a lute remind the viewer of the colonial project that this serenity depends on--though I have no idea if he saw it that way.  An exhibition of night photography completely transformed the urban world. 

Late afternoon our feet needed a rest and we needed caffeine and sugar to be able to go another three hours, so we took ourselves to the little café in the American wing.  It was full of people hunched and leaning into deep conversation.  No one was noisy; everyone--speakers and listeners alike--was fervent, passionate.  Perhaps they weren’t even talking about the art, but their conversations nevertheleess spoke of  its ability to remind us of the depth and engagement we should have in our own lives.  Denis Donoghue in his book Speaking of Beauty argues that there is no single definition of beauty that any of us would find completely convincing, so the result is that we must speak about what we find beautiful and in so doing speaking about what is important to us.  Art, I believe, works the same way, prompting the kinds of conversations that go to the core of our lives and beliefs.

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