Having lunch with a friend who has been targeted for assassination is one way to up your appreciation of art. De Kooning after an omelet tapa with tomatoes and olives. Diebenkorn after grilled cauliflower. Matisse after a cappuccino.
When the furniture glue coated on the wires under his car didn’t explode because it was the coldest week in the Middle East in years, the assassins settled for Molotov cocktails and exploded his car after he returned home.
Kenneth Noland after talk about moderation in actions and politics. Robert Motherwell after consideration of Aristotle and the Golden Mean. Helen Frankenthaler after talk of “psychos” – his word – from France, Belgium, and Germany joining ISIS because it gives them license to kill.
The Phillips Collection, an exquisite private gallery, was halfway along my walk from the restaurant to my home. If not now, when?
Mondrian after sorrow for the distortion of Islam. Sam Francis after re-commitment to hope because the other options would be fatal. Adolph Gottlieb following recognition of how fear strips most people of courage.
I stood in front of the paintings with the most aggressive colors – not a day for meditative studies – and challenged them to “Hit me with your best shot. Fill me.”
Many years ago I meant a young man at the Phillips. He was set to have an exhibit there before everything went topsy-turvy when the director was found to be selling paintings from the museum to fund his personal life. The young man and I became lovers. I took LSD with him once. We became bear cubs and romped and rolled. I didn’t realize he considered LSD a basic food group. It fueled his amazing mind and art. He painted white on white and it got whiter and whiter over the years, though he and I were together only a few months. He invented a written language for me. The pieces he wrote were exhibited – an iconography of love on yellow paper.
He said, “If art doesn’t come off the wall, hit you behind the knees, and knock you to the ground, it’s not good enough.” I believed him then and I believe him now, though I believed then and believe now that there are subtle ways to be knocked over. Sometimes a feather will do. Maybe he believed that to. His paintings got very white.
But today was not a day for gentleness. I asked the strongest, most colorful, most daring art to hit me. Come off the wall. Slam me to the ground. Fill me. Show me – prove it! – that humans are greater, are larger, are better animals than we seem. We are not just people who kill, people who try to kill my friend because he educates people in the truth so they will stop killing each other, people who kill innocent Muslim students, people who bomb Syrians, extremists who capture and rape young women. That there needn’t be more bombs, more killing, more blood, more freezing cold, more lack of shelter in the freezing cold, more stupidity, more justification, more ignorant savagery. That it need not be! We are better than this. We have artists, we have voices, we have kindness in us.
Slam us, art! Save us from ourselves! Keep red on the canvas and off our clothing and bodies. Give us meaning and perspective and hope that, despite the horrors we commit, we can find our way to compassion and care for each other. Knock us to the floor so we can rise in hope.