On Saturday, November 2, 1991, I flew to Washington DC for some sort of young leadership conference. I know it was this date because, according to a ticket stub you can buy on eBay, on Friday, November 1, 1991, the Violent Femmes played Memorial Gym at Vanderbilt University. I wanted to go to the show but my parents seemed to think that I couldn’t manage going to a concert one night and getting on an airplane the next day so they gave me the ultimatum, “You can go to DC or go to the concert.” To this day, I don’t understand the logic but it’s fine. 30 years later, the Violent Femmes are not anything on my bucket list despite a still-strong affection for their Why Do Birds Sing? album. A friend of mine had a recordable cassette tape that would cycle through a 30-second loop tape. He put 30 seconds of crowd noise on it so I could stay home and listen to the Femmes on one tape player with the crowd noise in another.
I have no idea what this conference was that I attended. I don’t even know the name of it. It had a generic “Future Leaders of Something” kind of name. I don’t know how I was invited. I just got a letter in the mail because that’s how things used to work. Did I get nominated by a teacher? No clue. There was nothing in my permanent record in 1991 that would suggest that I was going to be a future leader of anything. For all we knew, my parents were buying a plane ticket for me to get sold off into servitude. More than likely the organizers just checked tax filings versus age of kids and said, “I bet this kid’s parents can afford to send their kid to DC for a week.” Somewhere in my parents’ attic is probably an article in the free Hendersonville paper of me going and meeting our then-representative, Bart Gordon. We had a mock Congress about the Brady Bill and I had to contact my congressional representatives for info before I left. Al Gore’s office sent me about 300 pages of something or the other with a photocopied note of his handwriting that said, “I’m happy to send these materials to you” or something generic that would suit any request for information that came into his office. No one else sent me anything. The material that I did get was written in legalese and was worthless.
Along with a bunch of clueless teenagers debating the finer points of gun control, we were put on buses a few times to see different landmarks in DC. There was a nighttime tour of the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorial. We went to Arlington for the Iwo Jima statue. There was a tour of the House and Senate. I still remember sitting in the House gallery listening to them debate something about telephone companies. It was tedious for a 17-year old and I imagine it would be tedious for a 45-year old. We went to the south lawn of the White House and watched George H.W. Bush welcome the president of somewhere not too big or powerful to the House.
We went to Union Station. There was a record store in there. I bought Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Golden Palominos’ Drunk with Passion. I could probably tell you where I bought every 45, LP, tape or CD that I ever owned. Now I just wake up on Friday and scroll through a “New Music” tab. It’s a shame. The Nevermind purchase felt mandatory. One of those things you get so you know what people are talking about. The Drunk with Passion purchase was because Michael Stipe sang the first track and, in 1991, I felt like I needed anything he sang. That was a hit-or-miss proposition. If you win, you get him singing “Alive and Living Now” on this Palominos record. It’s a recording that shows, R.E.M. or not, you were going to hear Michael Stipe’s voice in the 80s and 90s. If you miss, you get him rapping about sex education on a Neneh Cherry album.
The collection of students was random and semi-threatening? I couldn’t figure it out. There was me- nerdy, suburban, cloistered and a few other people like me and then dudes that look like they stepped out of some educational 80s video of “tough guys”. There was a guy from New Orleans who always wore a Saints hat and one of those early 90s “team jackets”, the kind like Ice Cube always had a Raiders version of. I don’t know what you call them. This guy always had a lollipop in his mouth, and he took every opportunity to make some sex joke based off the word “cherry”. He latched onto me like fresh meat and would say the strangest things as insults. “I bet you couldn’t even get a girl pregnant.” What? Is that a goal where you come from? We’re at a leadership conference, right?
Somewhere in the mix of this week, we were given a full day in the Smithsonian area. I think I spent 10 minutes in Aersopace and just long enough in the American wing to see Archie Bunker’s chair. After that, one of my fellow nerdy suburbanites and I went to the National Gallery. And there I was, finally at an art museum. If you’re an artist (as in an artist that went to school, got a degree, then got suckered into going for the MFA) you probably had decent access to art growing up or at least went to a museum at some point. I grew up in a suburb of Nashville, a city that for some reason never developed a collecting art museum. We didn’t have art books at the house. We didn’t really have art books at school. Our art history was a collection of aging magazines and none of it was ever laid out in chronological order. In junior high, I thought Picasso painted the Mona Lisa. The first time I stepped into a legitimate art museum was when I was 17 years old during the first week of November of 1991.
My memory is that I went straight for the modern wing, bypassing anything from the medieval to the early 20th century. Winding through the galleries led me to Jackson Pollock’s Number 7, 1951. It was the first Pollock I’d seen in person and it was nothing like what I knew of drippy, all-over Pollock. And when I say, “what I knew of drippy, all-over Pollock”, I mean that I once saw two of his paintings in an old issue of a high school arts magazine. This had drips but it also had figures. It only used black. I had no frame of reference for this. Was it pre-drip? Was it later? No clue. The card on the wall lacked any information other than the basics. In the modern era, not even the entry on the museum’s website provides any context. Compare it to the page for Lavender Mist and you’ll see how highly regarded one is compared to the other. Mist has an essay. It’s a “highlight”. Number 7 isn’t even on display right now. It’s what the art world regards as Pollock past his prime. The painting equivalent of any Beach Boys album after Pet Sounds. Fortunately, I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t have the baggage of critical opinion to unpack when standing in front of it. It was just me (and the other guy I was with) and this Pollock that was not all-over. There was a structure and a hierarchy. There was a top and a bottom. There was a man and a woman stuffed into the right 1/3, embracing (?) while the left 2/3 contains 15 or so vertical lines dotted with pools of black and a pile of marks at the bottom that look like an abstracted attempt at an extinguished campfire. It is Pollock rediscovering his mid-1940s figuration. Pollock, like everyone coming out of the war, with a foot in Surrealism-inspired analysis and Picasso. I see heads in the left, but it is probably meant to be trees or something organic and exterior. But the positioning of everything has a sensation of observing or spying or peeping. A monologue started going through my brain while looking at it and it took me a minute or two, but I realized I was going through Steve Martin’s monologue from L.A. Story when he’s explaining a painting at the L.A. County Museum in a completely ridiculous way. But it seemed to fit this Pollock. I know it’s not the real inspiration for Martin’s script, but I thought it was funny how it lined up. I didn’t need any of that. I just really liked the painting.
Maybe Pollock is like Haruki Murakami. Whatever Murakami book you read is probably going to end up being your favorite. For the most part, they’re variations on a theme. Maybe whatever your first Pollock is, that’s your favorite. This is my favorite. I don’t really care what history says. There was a show of his later black works a couple of years ago that reignited discussion of their merit. I don’t know where we collectively landed after that. It got good press, but I don’t know if that’ll trickle down into the classroom. Granted, these are not the paintings that get him into the history books or “reinvent” painting, but they’re my favorites. They make sense with their predecessors and their followers. It’s just black enamel. Such clarity of mark and shape and image. The raw canvas sits there, open and bold. The reductive nature of that period, compared to something more “important” like Lavender Mist, is something you look for in the late work of masters. Matisse boiled it down to nothing as did Cezanne (relatively speaking). You want an artist to get to a point where they know a single line can do the work of an elaborately constructed form. I think the solo in Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl is one note? You want to see artists grow into that confidence.
The day ended and I went back to the dorm or wherever I was staying on that trip. Where was I?! Somehow, the tough kids saw photos in my wallet of girls that I went to high school with. It’s weird to think that used to be a thing. You walked around with a wallet full of photos of your friends that you saw every day. Anyway, the tough kids apparently thought the girls I hung out with were attractive so they stopped thinking of me as a sexless wonder that would die a virgin and tried to be nice to me after 3-4 days of acting like rejects from a John Hughes movie. I didn’t get to another museum until I got to college and went to the Knoxville Museum of Art. It’d be another two years after that before I got back up to DC and saw another moment of clarity: the National Gallery’s installation of Matisse’s large-scale paper cutouts. It’d take two more years to get to New York. I’d see a lot more Pollocks. They always looked nervous and unsettled and angsty but once I knew his story then I became like everyone else and couldn’t divorce the man from the art. More often than not, when looking at Pollocks, I looked for the bugs that got caught up in the splatter and died. I took art history classes. We never talked about Pollock in 1951. I never had to argue for it because no one ever brought it up. It was mine, and in some ways, it still is but only because no one else seems to want it.