Considering My New Year’s Resolution to “Be Smart Again”

My friend Jimmy and I have a bit of a New Year’s tradition: on the first weekend of the new calendar, we go to a museum.

everyone has their own New Year's tradition... most involve wine. mine is no different
everyone has their own New Year’s tradition… most involve wine. mine is no different

Technically,  it’s something we’ve only done twice, but I’m pretty sure twice is two times enough to qualify as a steadfast tradition. We take it pretty seriously. Jimmy expects me to spew brilliant insights about whatever artwork we see. I expect we’ll end up somewhere we can order wine. We both expect to finish the day a little more cultured, to catch up on what’s happened since our last outing, and to share insights on what we hope for in the year ahead.

For 2014, our destination was the Frick Collection — a mutual favorite on Museum Mile — and the “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals” exhibition. Vermeer’s famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and Hals “Goldfinch” had been drawing record crowds for the otherwise dozy (but outstanding) house museum, and so we bundled up and prepared to wait outside on the sidewalk… for an hour… on the coldest day in a decade.

Inside the museum’s galleries, standing inches from one of the most famous paintings in the world, I was at a loss for words…

No. Really. Like, here I was — the art historian/curator/gallery director — and all I could say was: gosh, gee, I expected the canvas to be shiner.

I had a painful realization: I used to be smarter.

Once upon a time, I could look at a painting from almost any time period and read it, or recall some interesting fact about its maker or its style or its period or… or whatever and spew out a short story. Like a fortuneteller and her tea leaves, I’d tell you about the things on the canvas you couldn’t see.

The Gainsborough portrait of Mrs. Peter William Baker that sparked a smile
The Gainsborough portrait of Mrs. Peter William Baker that sparked a smile

“There’s a smile on your face,” Jimmy noted as I stood staring up at a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. “Why?”

“I like large pretty portraits of not unattractive women. They say a lot.”

“Like what?”

“Like, ummmm, you can never have too many feathers…

This was true, but the Gainsborough said a lot more than that, and I knew it, I just couldn’t explain it. Now, I see a painting and my brain starts recalling other images — artworks line up before my eyes, a dictionary worth of visual vocabulary with definitions. That is, I see the files with all the information back there in the recesses of my brain, but when I go to call them up to sort them together, it’s: Access Denied.

Remember when I used to write blogs about dating using artworks?

While I deal with artwork every day, I realize I spend very little time looking and talking about it any more. I’m focused on how to display it, or how to get people in to see it, or how to write a press pitch about it. My approach to a painting has changed. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just different. I was smart. Now I’m savvy. It would be nice to be both.

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