I head over to SFMOMA for one last visit before I write this, my final post in my 8-part memoir based on items in the museum’s permanent collection. In the park at Yerba Buena Center, two young women with German-ish accents stop me and ask if they might take their photo with me. It’s for a school project; they’re to have their photo taken with a variety of people they meet on the street. I agree, and they ask a guy who’s sitting on a nearby bench to snap the picture. The women stand on either side of me and we smile. Click. They say they get more points if both of them are in the picture. Surprisingly, they’re not art students. “We go to Kaplan College,” they say, “to learn English.” I’m amused by the implications—I the word-maker on my way to find images to turn into words, become an image myself, an image that will be converted into language points. I cross Third Street, show my card at the membership desk, show my ticket to a woman sitting in an office chair in front of the stairs, climb the stairs, walk towards the right, part Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ gold-beaded curtains, turn back and take in the heft of their swaying. Instantly and always, memory and desire are all bound up, confused. I pass through the Mission School room—Untitled [Women Racing] is in the gallery to the right. I’m feeling nostalgia for my very public, private interactions with these pieces. I continue to the left, past Frida Kahlo’s Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931). Half an hour before closing on a Monday night, it’s just me, the art, and the guards. The art and I feel lonely—we long for more eyes. “Write about me!” cries Frida Kahlo’s painting. “What about all those notes you took about me.” The painting’s right, I planned to write about 80s experimental feminist poets’ fascination with Frida Kahlo, how Kahlo’s work was an antidote to the rabid disjunction that was in fashion, allowing us to enjoy an autobiographical female mode that was direct and confrontational. “I’m sorry,” I say to Frieda and Diego. “My plans were too grand, I ran out of space, out of time.” I continue on, past the former site of Moholy-Nagy’s Vom Funkturm (1929), past Eva Hesse’s Sans II (1968) and Untitled or Not Yet (1966). The sculptures cry out, “Write about me, about me!” “I don’t know if I could write cogently about you,” I tell the Hesses, “beyond babbling ‘I love you, I love you.’” I move on. The room full of Diane Arbus photos shriek, “Write about us!” Indeed, they were on my To Write About list, as I’ve been enamored with Arbus since I received her Aperture monograph in the mid-70s. In the early 80s, at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery, I finally saw an exhibit of Arbus photos, accompanied by my friend Mike Belt. We worked together at Chartmasters, a slide production house that was located on Howard at New Montgomery; Mike was the first person I knew to die of AIDS. Friends from Chartmasters made a panel honoring him for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. With a pang I pass the Jay DeFeos, wave at The Veronica, continue on. I stop in front of a small collection of Minor White photos. A museum guard is standing in the doorway, watching me like a hawk. I pause at my use of the word “hawk,” because the previous afternoon I found a hawk feather at Ocean Beach, a very Minor White location. When I looked up “hawk feather” online, I learned that owning one was illegal. White’s Point Lobos, California (1951) is printed so darkly, it’s hard to figure out what it is I’m seeing. I step closer to the photo and the guard, in turn, shuffles closer to me. The strip of ocean in the background is easy, but the rest of it, is it some kind of rock formation? A landscape with low lying foliage, algae? And what are those white streaks? They remind me of seagull shit, I think, very unlyrically. They look like ghosts snaking their way up to the top, converging. I take a step back and they look like bones in a burial heap. The landscape of White’s Point Lobos threatens to disappear in a kinetic patterning of lights and darks, of white streaks against sculptural dark ground.
Minor White always makes me think of G. I met him in the Caffe Trieste in 1979. I groggily sauntered through the door, wearing my favorite bell bottoms and a threadbare red T-shirt that belonged to this guy I was sort of involved with. From behind the counter, Yolanda said, “Good morning, bella.” I ordered my usual breakfast, almond ring and cappuccino grande, and sat at G.’s table. I’d never spoken to him but I’d been watching him for a couple of weeks from across the room. He was cute and he read books by Thomas Merton and Simone Weil. “Hi,” I said casually. G. was a photography student at the San Francisco Art Institute, and he was passionate about spirituality and art. His favorite photographers were American Modernists such as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz—and above all others, Minor White. I owned and adored Minor White’s Aperture monograph, Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations, and thus our friendship seemed fated. I quickly moved into G.’s life, taking on his friends, reading his books, listening to the ambient shifts of Terry Riley and Brian Eno, and the Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach. My Pointer Sisters’ Energy album and the soundtrack to Xanadu, I kept hidden in a closet. G. and I were never lovers, though I did spend the night with him. He slept on a thin foam mat in the middle of the bedroom floor. Other foam mats lined his living room floor. A sheet of plywood covered his claw-footed bathtub, with a photo enlarger sitting on top. I found G.’s austere living conditions so cool. Artistic, I decided, meant lack of furniture, and I copied his foam mat decor in my own apartment on Valparaiso Street. It was with G. that I first went to SFMOMA, at its previous location on Van Ness. He took me to see the canvases of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, which I never would have noticed, despite their grandeur—abstraction didn’t interest me. I’ve always preferred representation, images I can grasp and translate into language. Here’s a guilty secret: sometimes when I look at art, what I enjoy most are the titles. G. and I didn’t talk about color field or abstract expressionism, we talked about spirituality. I know—spirituality and art sounds embarrassingly pre-PoMo. In our culture of ahistorical surfaces and angles of gaze, we all know better than to go around searching for transcendence, yet I suspect that most of us still long for it, that being human, we’re hardwired for such longings. I admired G., so I stood before Still’s and Rothko’s paintings and tried to feel spiritual. I can’t remember if I succeeded. And I don’t know if Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still had any influence on my creative development—I looked at them a lot—beyond being reflections of a dear friend. G. had fleas in his bedroom carpet that mercilessly attacked his legs, so he wore flea collars around his ankles to sleep. We got into SFMOMA for free with G.’s SFAI student ID. Instead of a ticket, the attendant gave you a round aluminum button, half an inch across, painted the color for the day, which you clipped to your clothing. I loved those pink or yellow or turquoise dots, would “forget” to remove them when I left the museum. I wanted the world to see me wearing them, the dots said I’m an artistic young woman living in San Francisco, my friends are artists, it’s a normal thing in my life to go to an art museum. When I was a girl I dreamt of an artistic paradise, a sort of Shangri La of the creative spirit. Wearing my SFMOMA button proved that I had found it. I know I’m not talking much about the art, but the art was always present, the bright jagged patches of Clyfford Still, the soft rectangles of Mark Rothko, erotic in their newness, their inaccessibility. I was always over-analyzing things, and these painters—and my relationship with G.—resisted interpretation—to exist with them at all, my churning mind had to surrender, had to allow them a complex tangibility. The flea collars were a milky white plastic, almost translucent against G.’s pale skin. I remember him in T-shirt and briefs, hopping around his foam slab-slash-bed, flea collars jiggling, and half a mile away, foghorns bleating from the bay.