Straggling at the Guggenheim



88th St. & 5th Ave, NY, NY 10128

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

It’s a freezing Friday night at the Guggenheim, 8:00, and technically the museum closed 15 minutes ago. Two gallery guides, as their bright red tags indicate they’re called, are following Cate and me down the spiral that swoops around the building’s atrium like some giant half-stretched slinky. In their early twenties, at times during our forced march they are some twenty or thirty feet behind us, and at other times they’re practically stepping on our heels. They’re sweepers, having started at the top of the loop, in the room with all the crucifixions, and corralled the remaining museum-goers toward the exit via the long, curving walk which ends at the door to the frigid pavement on Fifth Avenue.

Cate and I take a minute to admire a portrait of a young girl, her dark hair cut in a straight line across her chin—her bright brown eyes seem as if she’s looking right at you!—before resuming the walk. Cate and I don’t always agree when it comes to fine art, so many of our dalliances involve a painting that she likes and I don’t, or vice versa, disassembling what elements strike us for liking or not liking. When we stop to agree that neither of us likes a stuffy still life with food, the gallery guides have caught up with us. “We’re still closed,” they say, but in a nice way. Footsteps and voices echo in the atrium.

The one on the right is named Vanessa Rubio, and it’s only her second week on the job. She arrived at the Guggenheim after working for several years at the Americas Society Art Gallery on Park Avenue and 68th Street, a job she described as much less busy, and “on Park Avenue, so you get those kind of people.” Rubio has the skin tone of white frosting dusted with cinnamon, or coffee with lots of cream, and her long, dark, curly hair is pulled back into a neat bun. She wears trendy purple titanium glasses. She is an artist—mostly a painter, but she does some cartooning, too—who chose this new job because it allows her more time to take classes in the evenings at the School of Visual Art. At 23, she recently graduated from NYU, where she majored in art and art history.

When I met Rubio, upstairs, Cate was admiring a crucifixion by Jusepe de Ribera, who lived in the Kingdom of Naples, then part of the Spanish empire, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The painting features a mostly-naked Jesus, nailed to a cross, with rivulets of blood, and a pained expression.

As a rule, I hate crucifixion paintings, and this was no exception. Even in the paintings where Jesus isn’t in the process of dying, he looks like he is, or should be. In my notebook, I noted that the paintings in this room are populated primarily by “draped and moaning people.” In fact, the one painting in this room that moved me is the one that seemed totally unrelated to the others, a tiny whimsical Goya canvas called “The Drunk Mason,” which depicts two men smirking at each other over the head of their friend, presumably the eponymous mason, who is too drunk to walk and who they are carrying between them, his stockings slouched down to his ankles. The sky, bright blue in the top left corner, melts to a white haze above their heads in the early morning.

“Look how sexual it is,” Cate said, indicating the Ribera, and I grunted uninterestedly. It didn’t look sexual to me, only boring. “There are no lines in his torso at all. He obviously loved the male form.” Rubio nodded, agreeing with Cate. “It’s definitely not boring,” she said. She said she has learned a lot from being around the masters here. She paints mostly people, herself, using acrylics to render paintings from photographs of herself and her friends, but her favorite in this room is a giant abstract charcoal drawing. “It’s going in all directions. I feel there’s a thousand stories in there,” she said. She was wearing a black sweater over a black shirt, with long rows of tiny white buttons on the sleeves. All of her paintings, so far, are untitled. “I’ve never named any of them because I don’t feel like they’re official enough to name,” she said. “I mostly just hang them in my house or in my family’s house. I’m not like, ‘this is “the Vase.” ’”

When Cate and I had first arrived, at 7:20, a security guard in a blue shirt and tie with graying hair told us we could not come in, since the ticket window had closed at 7:15. We would simply have to come back another time. However, the ticket seller said that tickets were in fact available until 7:30 and grudgingly allowed us to pay $5 for the both of us. It was “pay what you wish” night, and after all, we only had 15 minutes before closing.

The woman behind us on line asked if she could get in free, and as Cate and I were rushing upstairs we heard the ticket seller ask whether she had any pocket change to contribute. Clearly he’d been told that this is “pay what you wish,” not “pay nothing at all” night, and everyone was expected to pay something. Immediately I wished I had given him a couple of quarters instead of a precious 5 dollar bill. “Oh,” said the blue shirt and tie man, with raised eyebrows, as we thrust our tickets toward him. “You got in.” I couldn’t tell if he was irritated or simply making an observation.

Now he came upstairs to tell Vanessa Rubio that she should start herding the stragglers downstairs. “Oh,” he said, when he saw me. “Nice to see you again.” Rubio had just started telling me how Debbie Harry had come in that very afternoon, dressed all in ski boots and swishy pants like she’d been on her way to the slopes. “I tried not to look too much,” she said. And then I said, “I know you have to go,” which was going to be followed by “but,” and another question, when Rubio looked at me. “So do you,” she said, but in a nice way, and we commenced our forced march down the sloping hall and into the cold night.

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