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My Mother the Art Critic
Wrestling With Our Concepts
A Visit to the Albright Knox
My mother does not have cultural curiosity. She has spent her entire 78 years taking care of her home, her children and her men. On her own she would never consider a visit to an art gallery as a form of entertainment. She never wanted to visit Europe or Asia to see historic sites. Her idea of serious music is Lawrence Welk’s rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz. I believe at times, that I was planted into my family as some sort of divine practical joke. The gods must be crazy.
After my stepfather died I began incorporating mom into some of my regular activities. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery was having a special exhibit of French Art that I wanted to see. Here it was, New Year’s Day… the gallery was open and I was on my way out the door. As I was leaving the house I casually popped my head into my mother’s apartment and asked if she’d like to go with me. I actually thought she’d decline. Instead she said, “Sure, why not. Let me put on my shoes.” She was suffering with a bad knee so I gently tried to dissuade her, “Wear comfortable shoes, we’re going to be doing a lot of walking.” She countered with, “Aren’t there places to sit down? I thought in a big fancy place like that there would be chairs to sit in.” I ceased my objections and got into the idea of taking mom to the art gallery.
On the way there we had the same conversation we’ve had every car ride since I was 16. “Slow down. There’s a red light. Are you’re brakes working? Get over in your lane it looks like you’re too close to the curb. Do you need money for gas? Aunt Josephine is dying.” “Again?” was all I could muster in the car cluttered with words. Aunt Josephine had been dying of one thing or another for 35 years. I was quite certain that she would outlive me. We approached the front of the gallery on Elmwood and the conversation stopped.
I left my mother off in front of the gallery while I parked. As I walked back to the entrance my mother was in the foyer looking around. When I got inside she said, “This is it? It’s so small.” It was then that I realized she had never been there before. I informed her that we were in the foyer. I explained that there were many other rooms and two floors of art inside. I bought the tickets… one senior and one adult. Once you reach a certain age you can stop being an adult. I look forward to that day.
As we got to the staircase an attendant directed us to the elevator. No one had ever suggested I use the elevator before. There are advantages to consorting with the elderly. We got up to the second floor with all the 20th century art by Pollock and Rothko. She stepped out among these giant paint splotches and looked around up and down incredulously all along the expanse of walls over the fine collection of abstract expressionist art. In her loudest dancehall voice with her casual in-your-face look she aimed her question in the direction of the security guard, “This is art!?” In hushed tones I tried to explain that this type of art is not for everyone. I started to give her the last 100 years of art history in 25 seconds… she didn’t buy it and I finally had to admit that I don’t like this stuff much either. It turns out that the guard agreed with us.
We walked though the room with portraits from the 18th and 19th centuries. My mother squinted at the severe looking woman with the pulled back hair and asked why anyone would want to paint her picture. I explained portraiture and patrons of the arts and told her that the face she was seeing was probably idealized and the actual woman was probably much less attractive. I explained too that through history the idea of what’s beautiful has changed. All my mother said was, “Poor thing, she can’t help it. Maybe if she did something different with her hair?” I explained that the model had probably been dead for a couple hundred years. Mom wondered why anyone would want to see a picture of someone who had been dead for so long that nobody knew who she was. We shuffled on to the exhibit.
At the entrance the attendants handed us a listening wand. I explained how to use it and told mom that it would give some background information on some of the paintings. When we got into the exhibit it was packed. Mom looked at me in complete astonishment and exclaimed; “All these people like art? I can’t believe it!” On the planet where my mother lives art is of no consequence. She owns an oil painting that she got at Sears of a young girl playing the piano and a young boy playing the violin. To my mother that is art. It even has a small light perched on top of the ornate frame. My stepfather bought it for her 30 years ago and since then it has occupied a prized place in the living room across from the antique bubble framed photo of my grandparents on their wedding day.
In the exhibit I noticed my mother looked more at the people looking at the art than the actual art itself. She marched past most of the paintings and listened to a few of the high-flouten descriptions of the work on her wand. When I sat down next to her on the wide wooden bench she asked me, this time in a softer voice reserved for funerals and church, if everyone here was smart. I looked around and made my quick analysis, “At something, I suppose. We’re all smart at something.” If I had to examine the source of that thought no doubt it would be what I learned from my parents. If I had responded based on my cynical social persona the answer would have been quite different.
Personally, I was thrilled that there were so many people at the Albright Knox looking at art and not at home in front of the television trying to squeeze the last lifeblood out of the football season. I was happy to be in a setting where so much talent and brilliance could be absorbed from people who are long gone but not forgotten. And I was really glad that mom decided to tag along. There’s nothing like a little breeze from your own garden to help you keep your head up there in the rarified air of Artland.
That visit to the museum was almost 10 years ago now. Since then I've been to the Louvre, The National Gallery, MOMA, Philadelphia Museum of Art and too many others to mention. I've seen my favorite paintings such as The Sleeping Gypsy by Rousseau, Nudes Descending a Staircase by the brilliant Marcel Duchamp and Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh. Mom hasn't been to another museum since. She still shakes her head when she remembers our afternoon with art. She just doesn't understand what everybody sees in it and she is appalled that someone would "pay a million bucks for a painting of an ugly woman." But my mother still watches reruns of Laurence Welk and sings along with all the songs. She has since given her painting to my eldest sister Marie who, taking after mom, calls it art and hangs it proudly over her couch. And for me, I can't step into an art museum without smiling as I hear my mother loud and clear, "This is art!?" I will always have that even when my mother is no longer here to say it out loud.