We’re in the middle of a monochromatic season where I live—gray sky bleeding into muddy mounds of winter snow. There is also a pandemic on, as you may have heard, rendering the monotony particularly painful this year. That February begins with Groundhog’s Day seems like a cruel joke. To subvert the sameness I focus instead on Valentine’s Day, a bright crimson splash on the landscape. I decide we need to get out, to celebrate. We are going on a date, I tell my husband. But what is a date in a pandemic? Where to?
When I read that the Art Institute is reopening on February 11, I have my answer. We drive into the city, park among the filthy cars in the frigid concrete of the underground garage and crunch our way over salt-scattered sidewalks to the museum’s entrance. Wrapped in our thick coats, boots, winter hats, and masks, we experience the entire world as muffled and muted.
Once inside we mount the marble staircase and head for the Impressionists, pulling off hats and coats as we go. Entering the main room, we make our way around, careful to avoid others in the gallery. I stop in front of the first open space along the wall. I look up and gasp. I have seen the Renoir many times in my life, standing in this very spot but also on post cards, tote bags and other reproductions. The faces of the sisters in the painting are familiar to the point of being iconic, but I somehow I do not remember this color, this intensity. I do not recall a dress of deep sapphire, a hat of poppy red. Were the child’s cheeks always a soft rosy pink, the flowers in her hat such a brilliant blue? I cannot believe the colors I am seeing.
As I make my way through the gallery, the experience is repeated again and again. Familiar paintings blaze out of their frames. Standing in front of Van Gogh’s bedroom, I stare at a set of vivid green window casings in the center of the painting that I have failed to notice before. They are such a bright green that I wonder how it is possible I could have missed them in the past. I look up to see if perhaps the gallery lighting has changed, but then I understand. It’s not the lighting, it’s me. During the months at home, things have dulled. But this is life out of the house, off of a screen. It appears I have forgotten the brilliance of the real world.
We wander into an exhibit featuring the work of African American artist Bisa Butler. Despite having been warmed up by the color of the Impressionists, I am underprepared for Butler’s art. Her life-size portrait quilts depicting African American lives are riotous festivals of joy and color and pattern. Trained in the AfriCOBRA tradition, Butler works in kool-aid colors—jewel tones—royal purples, neon oranges, cherry reds. The pieces are huge, her subjects proud and whole. I feel a steady buzz begin to build as I move from quilt to quilt, dizzy and drunk on the color.
My husband and I pause in front of Southside, Sunday Morning, its five assumedly churchgoing boys set against a backdrop of wavy orange and blue. The boys gaze placidly out at us, holding their fedoras—little men in the making. I look around to exclaim over them and catch the eye of the museum’s security guard, unmistakable in her maroon blazer. “You have a great posting,” I tell her, referring to her station across from the piece. “Don’t I know it,” she replies joyfully. And then we’re off, talking about Butler’s work, gesticulating enthusiastically to make up for the facial expressions lost to our masks. She has a thorough knowledge of the exhibit, is familiar with all the pieces. We discuss our favorites. We speculate with excitement on the great work forty-eight-year-old Butler has yet to do. I am inexplicably happy. The conversation winds down; it’s time for us to move on and make space for others. We bid the security guard a reluctant farewell.
On the way home John and I rehash the trip. We discuss the paintings and the quilts but settle on the conversation with the security guard as highlight. I understand now that this, too, is what we have missed during these long months indoors, away from others. Not simply the stimulation of different sights and places, but the experience of the other. Conversations with strangers—the exchange of pleasantries or thoughts with someone not related to us, not speaking from a screen—have disappeared from our daily routines. We have been bereft of life in living color, the subtle shadings of each day made interesting through these interactions. I think about the smiling eyes of the security guard and feel a rush of genuine affection. As with the colors in the paintings, I wonder to myself, how had I not seen this before?
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