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It's Nelly's World

10 Pictures

alec vanderboom

It is a Palace of Democracy. What is inside was made for kings, pharaohs, generals, dictators, thieves, and the wealthy, who are all of those things. Yet here I was, and now all of it was mine--only temporarily but hey--for the price of a dollar ("Suggested admission: $28" ["Pay what you wish" in type almost too small to see, or that was their hope]). The plunder of nations and the ages, all collected in one lavish, epically scaled building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I like entering by the grand staircase of what appears to be a thousand steps: one should sweat a little for prizes like these. Into the immense white hall, with its sprays of fresh flowers the size of a football player. (They are replaced once a week, year round, under the terms of an endowment to the museum expressly for this purpose.) The Great Hall functions as a mountain: reminding us how
small we are.

This day, we let the two boys, clutching their drawing pads, rush ahead into the Greek wing. They hunkered down on the floor, blending into yet another group of art students, clustered at the feet of ancient heroes, with their offerings of sketchpad and charcoal. I was drawn, not to the heroic, but to the impossible: a small case containing glass. From Rome. Whole, unchipped. It spok
e of miracles. Maybe they were small ones, but those are the ones we can grasp.

After the sculpture, the boys intended to visit (of course) the swords. Then the samurai armor; it always frightens me. But them--it makes them dream. Of being frightening. That which the male of our species hopes for, while the female yearns to attract the warrior so he will take off the frightening armor, frightened of her. We wear it in different places, that's all.

The ladies decamped to the more intimate spaces upstairs, to see some photography. I wasn't much interested in the show of Steiglitz, Steichen, Strand--it is hard to see these grandaddies with a fresh eye, just as it is hard to look at the Mona Lisa and see anything but a thousand parodies--but I was interested in a show titled "Our Future Is in the Air: Photographs from the 1910s."
It got me thinking of the photographs I love, that always look new to me, and I felt like mounting my own exhibition, an intimate chronology of the art, starting with two from the aforementioned show.

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Tadeus Langnier

Anton Giulio Bragaglia, The Typist

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Bichonnade Leaping

Charles Sheeler, Doylestown House--the Stove

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina

Garry Winogrand, New Mexico

John Pfahl, Trojan Nuclear Power Plant

Lewis Baltz, from Park City

Richard Misrach, Desert Fire #249

I tried to figure out what linked these images, and for a long time I could not--apart from the fact that I love them especially, for they each appear to me nearly perfect. They are from different traditions and visions: futurist, formalist, snapshot, the "ruined landscape," the age of Manifest Destiny. Then I realized: they are all linked by their dedication to surprise, to opening the eye to what has been unseen in what is always seen. They are new, even if they are old.