A Multiplicity of Gray

Monet P. Thomas

“Her focus on works in palettes of white, black and a multiplicity of grays could not appear more dramatic nestled in the ivory bays and continuously flowing spirals of the Guggenheim’s interior.”

—Michael Fitzgerald, The Wall Street Journal

I should’ve been in Philadelphia, not queued outside the Guggenheim with A-. On exhibit: Picasso in Black and White. Just after Christmas, in the throwaway days of December, we should not have been together. Not that way. Now, years later, this day feels made up, ridiculous. I don’t want to believe I could be unfaithful, that I chose to be unfaithful. But the day did happen. Standing there in the line, the morning so cold in the city, my body shook. And A-, visiting home from Spokane, was so close that the air between our bodies was warm.
The truth is, parts of that day I engineered: making him pick me up for bagels and coffee, the ride into the city. Other parts were chance: how we got lost, realizing I wasn’t going to make the bus to Philly even as we sped toward it. I should’ve said, A-, take me home. I’d wanted a few moments with him, I admit, but I didn’t expect a whole day. We didn’t know about Picasso. We just saw the iconic white building against the sleet sky, decided Why not?
It took Frank Lloyd Wright years to complete the blueprints for the Guggenheim, after countless revisions and fights with the patron. He would never see the physical manifestation of his work before his death. Before the Guggenheim, just about all museums and art galleries used an open design, consisting of a series of interconnected rooms, which forced participants to retrace their steps and experience the art a second time as they exited. Wright’s original vision, utilizing a sloping ramp and an elevator, directly contradicted that model. Using the elevator, museumgoers would begin at the top of the gallery and follow the downward momentum of the ramp, engaging with the art in a uniform and linear experience.
Standing in the lobby and looking up at the winding bays, the skylight, I couldn’t help but think Wright accomplished even more than he aspired to. The structure was overwhelming and church-like in its dignity. I felt the urge to pray, though I never prayed. I had to tell myself, “You are not a tourist. Close your open mouth.” But like tourists, ignorant of our ignorance, we started up the ramp, not understanding why there was a line for the elevator.

“You feel art and architecture converging as you turn from the daring yet delicate spatial enigmas in The Accordionist (1911), one of the grandest of all Picasso’s Cubist compositions, to the shifting spatial arabesques that are revealed all through Wright’s mobius strip of a museum.”

—Jed Perl, The New Republic

I knew next to nothing about Picasso prior to our trip to the Guggenheim. I knew the artist was Spanish, had seen pictures of Guernica and knew vaguely of its implications. My explanation of Cubism would’ve involved hand motions as well as words. And I knew that, like Wright, much of Picasso’s mythos was tied to his numerous affairs. Standing behind A-, who always got as close as the crowd and security allowed, I looked past him, tall and thin, and saw what books and lectures couldn’t teach me. Art should stand like a building or a child grown to be an adult—without help or explanation, without preamble or backstory. Even as I try to tell you about this day, I can’t know if I’m telling it right.
Up and up we went, the crowd growing as the lunch hour neared. I followed close on A-’s heels, but didn’t hold his hand, though I wanted to with everything inside me. Instead, I held onto the dark hem of his winter coat as his height and determination parted the crowd. The biggest group formed in front of a section of Guernica in monochrome, the artist’s draft before the famous version. The horse’s head in white with box teeth. Black shapes of space, an open gray mouth.
“Interesting,” A- said.
“I think I like it in color better.” I said.
“Yes,” said A-, said, “but look how many shades of gray there are.”
I looked. We moved on. I’d always thought of Picasso in riotous color, but over and over we saw he’d found infinity with just black, white, and gray. And despite the reviews I’d read later, I still saw Picasso’s women: his daughter, his wife, his mistress, his other mistress, his muses. He could never be without them.

“Black and white intensifies our sense of Picasso’s changeableness. You see black as line and plane, surface and substance, pure thought and pure emotion.”

—Jed Perl, The New Republic

I know what it means to be changeable. I’d changed my mind about what was more important to me more than once, but in the end I went with knowing there would always be food on the table. I didn’t know if I could be an artist without a muse, but I knew I couldn’t be an artist at all if I was starving.
The night A- finally kissed me, we were standing outside my Spokane apartment building, the night air cooling around us. Summer was slowly giving way to autumn. I’d be gone in a week. Even now, I can feel his hands on my body: one on my face, the other gripping my side, like he’d been waiting his whole life. I kissed him back. I already loved him. I didn’t want to use those words then, but it was love filtered through a multiplicity of gray, closer to black than white, and not enough.

“The spiral layout, affording generous views ahead and behind, might actually be the perfect format for Picasso displays. The artist, after all, was always looking back at himself even as his creative drive corkscrewed ahead. The theme-and-variation dynamic that emerges establishes not just the high level but the true nature of Picasso’s intelligence.”

—Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe

The day at the Guggenheim was a stolen day. The last of its kind, and we knew. For us, sharing art was as much an act of infidelity as going to a hotel room. We didn’t talk about the past, the other people in our lives. I was myself, in love, distant. He was himself, quiet, sure. We looked at the Picassos, shoulder to shoulder when space allowed, unfaithful together. At the top of the gallery we leaned forward against the railing and looked down. The lobby was swarming like a hive but without a seeming purpose. A woman in a trench coat had her head tilted back, looking up at the skylight, her straight black hair falling behind her.
We failed to fulfill Wright’s vision—a clean path from elevator and ramp is rarely fully realized by the average museum-goer. But on reflection, I found the second viewing of the art instructive. I followed A- down, studied the line of his neck, and remembered how my mouth felt against that one soft place. I remembered the nights I knew I loved him, but would not pursue it, instead choosing to stay with who I was already with, the two of us quiet and content. I remembered the first day we met in a park. Down we went along the sloping ramp. It had been summer, and then was winter. The lobby came quickly, the ground flat again and then we were stepping out onto the street. It was snowing, the flakes melting when they touched the ground. The sky still, and light, and gray.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.
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