John Vincler’s column Brush Strokes examines what is it that we can find in paintings in our increasingly digital world.
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), The Vision of Saint John, ca. 1608–14, oil on canvas, 87 1/2 x 76″. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public domain.
I will remember 2020 not as a year of looking but as a year of listening. For months as the pandemic overtook New York, ambulance sirens sounded at all hours in strange choruses. When the sound of the sirens would break occasionally or fade into the distance after dawn, it was replaced not by eerie silence but by birdsong: the shrieks of the blue jays, the playful cheeps of the sparrows in the bushes, the eeks, chirps, and oddly varied sounds of the grackles everywhere. I wondered then, Were these sounds always here, and it was we who were made quiet? I rarely left my neighborhood of Ditmas Park, in Brooklyn, except to take my partner, Kate, pregnant with our second child, to appointments at the Manhattan hospital complex that was itself a hive of sirens that grew louder each time we approached. In my memory the sirens and birdsong were followed by police helicopters seemingly always overhead, as the city erupted in Black Lives Matter protests and the violent police response that only ensured they should continue. The helicopters loomed in the skies above as I ran circles over the same patch of weeds in the small plot of our shared backyard, playing a game my four-year-old daughter, Leo, calls “dinosaur chase” (she is the dinosaur, I am her lunch). Half the year was marked by interrupted sleep—first the constant fireworks at all hours of the night and then, by the end of the summer, the squawking and cooing of the baby, unaware of the distinction between day and night. As I write this, collecting a year, it is spring again. The neighborhood seems to be returning to some approximation of the old sounds from before. That is, if we can recall the way it used to sound. Even the old sounds are heard differently now. With my daughter in her mud boots, bird book and binoculars in hand, as the baby sleeps at home on Kate, we begin each day our circuit. Leo collects sticks, rocks, and seed pods, stomps in puddles, and pauses to track blue jays in a tree, following their noisy stutter.
This past October, I had my temperature taken outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After seeing the line that snaked out for what seemed like a mile, I immediately wanted to leave. There were a number of reasons I felt so jittery. I was concerned about the ethics of visiting at all, of the labor of the museum worker, a role I had once played, having to now be exposed regularly as they held the thermometer to our foreheads, even the baby’s. Also, I was worried that maybe Leo had gone feral for the better part of the year, no longer spending her days on the college campuses where her parents taught or in the museums and galleries we frequented. I tried to keep her standing on her yellow dot, as she agitated to dart off and play in the fountain. The idea was to make a pilgrimage to experience a shard of the abruptly abbreviated Gerhard Richter show that had closed nearly as soon as it opened in March 2020. My distrust of the press-preview experience of art had left me waiting to see the exhibition among a crowd, and by then it was becoming clear that it was unwise to gather in crowds at all. In the months afterward Manhattan became a place over the river, its galleries and museums suddenly impossibly far away. Read More