Below was the painting I loved most at the exhibit. The echoing colors, shapes, and arches. The shadings of blue and two greens I’ve never seen. How can blue be so warm? A living arch from the room to the bridge, connecting inner life and the outside world. And the light! Oh, the light. I loved his interiors and I needed them. They were so comforting, homes I could live in for the day.
It’s all perspective. I just had the best visit of my life. I went to Manhattan, Matisse, and me.
Ten minutes after stopping at the house to measure a window, Steve and I sat down on a train whose doors promptly sealed us off from Long Beach. We were pulled toward the city, and the world outside emboldened itself and leapt all over the front of our canvas in the bold colors of goldfish and big blue dresses and large-leafed Moroccan plants. I couldn’t have known until after the Matisse exhibit where the window and all our worries went, but they were etched into the paint, backed into the canvas, receding—and reversing our perspective.
Steve had pointed out that we needed some beauty. The most color I get in the hours I am home are the patterned sarongs draped over the three casement windows, none of which match. The only light that enters here is between the hours of two and four, while I am still at work. Even when we step outside, we see seawater-spattered stucco, debris-ridden yards, salt-burnt shrubs, and piles upon piles of trash. So many of the windows that separate and unite this picture with the even sadder scenes inside houses are marred by an X of red tape. Yes, it is hard to see through our frustration in this place.
So we got out, in search of beauty. On the way, we held hands and laughed on the train. Beautiful. Steve visited his favorite barber in Koreatown and I passed the time in an antique bookstore because old books and maps are bewitching. The beautiful bookstore guy and I talked about Finnegan’s Wake, because language is divine when manipulated by a master. I got some coffee and met a girl from Macedonia—maybe the most exquisite place name in the world.
Our lunch in a charming French-Moroccan place was full of color, spice, flavor, and originality. Even our server was sweet and stunning. Light spilled everywhere from the generous windows, and I took pictures of the dazzling effects on our full glasses. Fortunately, it wasn’t until we got home and looked at the photos that we noticed the horrifically tormented man from The Scream was trapped inside the glass of Cremant Rose we had so admired and enjoyed. Yesterday, I drank it down, blissfully oblivious.
As we walked from the subway to the Met, we passed a handsome, stately row of splendid homes I did not know existed in New York. Does this look like America to you?
The subway does. It looks to me like my family’s America. I always loved the graceful yet sturdy symmetry of its echoing lines and curves, how they carry you to the platform opposite so that you occupy both at once. The lines, painted black to absorb all the light, deliver it to the other side where the steady rows of illuminated subway tile are decorated only by people—an endless stream of color coming down from the street. Maybe my love for my grandfather, a subway man, colored my love for the subway. Or maybe I was just channeling Henri Matisse, who used black to displace and, in so doing, magnify the light.
Now that I am back in Long Beach and once again trying to make sense of our current situation, I realize his use of black was another example of how Matisse must be our artist of the moment. He chose black not only to highlight the light but to be the light, where light was too blindingly brilliant to be expressed.
In times like these, it is often futile to try and light the dark. But when looking from a future perspective, we so often see that the dark was the light. Don’t we see everything in terms of light? Isn’t that, after all, what seeing is? And then, when we see only dark, isn’t that just another aspect of the light? If, like Matisse, we can remember that the dark is only one expression of light—perhaps a light so blinding we cannot see–then our dark days indeed become something worth painting.
Yes, Matisse was full of lessons and analogies. The revealing dark; the shift in perspective that brought colorful life to the forefront and left limiting lines behind; and now the new color you could never have dreamed—that could also be no other. The impossible red of Red Studio or the blue magic inside an open case in Interior with a Violin—these colors seem to have given birth to the space they occupy. I kept asking myself, and Steve—and wishing my color blind husband could answer—how could such a color exist? How did I live my whole life up until now without seeing it?
Like so often, I am reminded of our love. I thought I had known us in all our shades—muted, soft browns; the deepest plums; the most joyous orange tinge. But the storm has pulled wild, unknown colors out of Steve and me to fill the new spaces. We always knew red, but we didn’t know that red. We marvel at each other, at the strange new hues of us together.
So storm survivors, don’t lose hope. There are new colors, countless colors, which could not have become any other. I saw them yesterday.
You can see, too, until March 17 at the Met. Get out of here for a few hours, for the price of a train ride, a subway ride, and a donation. Even if you don’t feel like thinking, go to feel. To feel better. Matisse called his works an “art of balance, purity, tranquility, devoid of disturbing or disquieting subject-matter which will be for everyone who works with his brain, a businessman or a man of letters, for example, a balm, a soothing influence on the mind, something akin to a good armchair which provides relief from bodily fatigue.”
Since the storm, we’ve all become unwilling business people negotiating around the clock in order to win back our modest lives. Go visit your life, for a day. Then ask it to follow you home. Remember the light and discover the colors so that come summer, we can paint this town.