M. M. De Voe
Upper East Side, Manhattan.
They climb the marble staircase. He presses a buzzer and tumblers snick in a hidden lock. He takes his married friend gently by the elbow to keep her from falling off five inch stilettos; she knew she’d be walking, and yet.
Her elbow is soft from weekly massages. His hand is soft from manicures. He guides her through the wrought iron doors, past the security guard, and into a private art gallery.
He calls her Mrs. Talbott and she calls him Matt. Her nails are polished earth tones. Her hair lacks gray. His is salt and pepper. They are the same age.
He is her buyer.
When he hands her the complimentary glass of champagne, their fingertips touch.
He presents to her his favorite painting, one he has already visited four times in the past week.
He thinks: Look closely. Barcelo’s mannerisms evoke an earlier century: can you see it? The chaos that delivered Modernism? The 1848 revolution and the daunt and dint of Europe as it industrialized? Can you see what this means? Instead of watching some angry waves dashing against a blackened seashore, we loom overhead, falling endlessly into a frothy maw of canvas. Barcelo is a genius. A contemporary genius. This work is a modern Barbizon painting if ever there was one: pure in its savagery and beauty; hectoring in contemplation; primordial in execution. I want to create when I see it. I want to tear up everything I’ve ever done, shred it all, and make something new. Something worthy. He makes me want to die. Do you see it?
He says nothing.
She looks at the painting, biting her lip.
She examines the tiny card.
mixed media on canvas
80 3/4 x 98 1/2 inches
He says: So?
She says: It's nice. Are there more?
He thinks: Can't you see how it heaves and undulates? Light rakes the peaks of the paint; you want to reach out and touch it. Valleys reveal undercuts that are dark voids colored by shadows impossibly deep. This is fullness. Wholeness. Materials and application are inescapable here. Look at it: green and black and white, over and over again, offering only slight breaks in a fierce Naples yellow. That one simple color rendering--yet at the same time nearly transforming--this magnificent piece into something unrecognizable.
He says nothing.
She waits for his answer. The painting is a big square canvas with thickly applied oils in dark colors. There are no pictures on it. Nothing to point to and say: I really like that woman’s hat. What a charming expression on the little dog. Oh! The Saint looks so holy. She doesn’t like paintings, not really. What she loves is the still mystery of the air-conditioned rooms, empty except for someone’s passion immortalized on a square. Like walking into someone’s dark, cool library and reading their diary. She knows she can’t read art, but her buyer can. Matt knows the words to describe the human soul. He knows, and here is why she keeps accepting his offers of lunch:
One day, when he finally gets up the nerve to kiss her, she will give in.
He says: Yes. Another room. And we can go upstairs.
He returns to his favorite. Stands four feet away, then two, then inches. He lets the mastery pour over him, through him. He wishes he'd painted it, feels guilty of the thought, wishes it again, more fervently. He fears his employer is getting bored. She is very quiet today. He takes her again by the elbow, less gently this time, more securely, as if the presence of the painting were enough to give him a right to touch her. She tells him of a funny incident that happened to her in the Hamptons. When she laughs, she leans towards him and he can smell the gardenia scent of her expensive day spa.
He asks her to coffee. She nods. He leads her down the marble steps and into a charming but crowded tea shop. Because she doesn’t ask, he never tells her the English translation of the title of the painting he adores, but the two words crash around in his mind like a pair of wild hawks trapped in a child’s bedroom: Strong Swell. They sit elbow-to-elbow and he pays and they talk about how nice the pastries are.