Kicking crystal, not Courbet

30 Dec

Stopping in Philadelphia for my first visit since the early Devon days made me remember why I never spent more than two nights at a time there: It’s a wonderful city with one of the best art museums in the country, but from a working standpoint it’s frequently strange and almost never profitable for me.

This is partly because it’s an agency town and partly because so many of the calls I get are from guys who talk a lot on the phone but never close the deal. The “slave” who sends endless texts about what you’ll do to him but neither shows up nor replies when summoned. The man with the Atlanta area code who says he lives downtown, then, after much phone tag, gives you an address 20 minutes away from your hotel that leads to a multi-unit house with no lights on, the porch from which you call saying “I’m downstairs,” to which he replies, “I’ll come down and get you” but doesn’t. (As a bonus, GPS leads you back to the hotel, which has no functioning Internet, via New Jersey, making you pay a $5 toll for crossing the bridge.)

Still, what a place the Philadelphia Museum of Art is. I hadn’t been since seeing its Manet and the Sea exhibition in early 2004, during my final stay there before embarking on the wild road trip that ended my first escorting career.

Eduoard Manet, Departure of the Folkestone Boat, c. 1868-1872. Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection.

The museum’s Manet seascapes from that exhibition, which was actually a group show, were on view in the permanent collecion galleries, and I think I gave them closer inspection this time than I did during the exhibition. In a March 17, 2004 diary entry — I would have been heavy into crystal meth at this point but still lucid — I wrote that the Manets were “upstaged by a group of electrifying pieces by Gustave Courbet, who must be one of the most dramatic sea painters ever, and (of course) by Whistler, who was represented by much more tranquil but still captivating selections.”

Gustave Courbet, Marine, 1866. Philadelphia Museum of Art. John G. Johnson Collection.

Whistler became very important to me while I was on crystal; though I kicked meth, I never kicked him. More on him later.

The same was true of Courbet, who was even better on land than at sea. My umpteenth-generation abstract expressionism began shifting in search of a way to make a whole picture that had as much painting in it as in this swatch of a Courbet:

Gustave Courbet, The Fringe of the Forest (detail), c. 1856. Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Louis E. Stern Collection.

A couple years later, while I was keeping my head down at the Univeristy of Houston — too busy and idea-bereft to paint and before I the Houston Chronicle provided a critical platform for a few years — the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s stupendous Courbet and Modern Landscape exhibition provided critical nourishment.

The drive up to New York was hell. Remind me never, regardless of what GPS says, to take the Lincoln Tunnel into the city again. Parking the car for a week will cost about what I paid to stay by the beach in Fort Lauderdale.

Reliable Narratives, Untitled, from the Subway Series, 2011. Jpeg. (Caption also applies to the photos below.)

But it’s New York, where anyone fiddling with his phone on the subway can play Henri Cartier-Bresson.

2 Responses to “Kicking crystal, not Courbet”

  1. hjbott January 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Many thanks, Devon, for this revealing episode and the museum memories. Certainly want you to return to the Chronicle reviewing the Houston outpost.

  2. James January 4, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    Alas you probably were better off taking the Lincoln. Both the Holland Tunnel and GW Bridge can be brutal.

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