Sunday, February 07, 2010

Double Self

The sculptures of Viola Frey overwhelmed me today, stalking me through Manhattan's Museum of Art and Design in Columbus Circle, surrounding me in their oversized grandeur and gawky majesty.

Frey's glazed ceramic people are the star attraction of this quirky, creative space, accosting visitors, delighting and deluging their senses, demanding that the fullest attention to be paid.

"Have you ever heard of her?" I asked my friend, an artist, astonished that Frey's name and work was unknown to me, abashed at revealing the depth of my ignorance.

Much to my relief, my friend shook her head.

It was a Sunday of extremes -- extreme cold, extreme wind, extreme sunshine, extreme emotion. Early February already. How did that happen?

After a night of dancing, I had been on the go for hours -- from an 8 am meeting, to a 9:30 workout, to an 11 am brunch with friends. Now, it was midday and I was ambling comfortably through this quaint museum with a friend I had known for nearly twenty years. Dinner and family responsibility was three hours away.

My friend and I met nearly two decades earlier when we were living in Westchester County and the mothers of young children. One of those children is lost; two others were since born. One of us is a Manhattanite, the other a Connecticut homeowner. We know the scaffolding of each others' lives but today, endeavored to learn the interior design. To this end, we traded tales, listening, probing, sometimes challenging the other. We spoke about our work and our professional ambitions. We articulated what we sought in our intimate relationships. We pondered the depth of the chasm between men and women.

We mostly walked and sometimes sat. At one point, we watched a short film about Viola Frey. In it, the artist is captured in the act of creating her inimitable art. She addresses the interviewer, answering questions or speaking spontaneously about her work. Her colleagues talk about her. It is important to note that she died in 2004, at the age of 70. Funny, how we nurture the illusion that the entire span of a human life can be condensed into one museum trip, how we gain a glimpse into the creative mind of Viola Frey through some clunky, colorful statues in a Manhattan museum.

Hours later, it is one comment -- captured in the film -- that stays with me. It belongs to a fellow artist, a woman, who recounts how Viola told her not to get married and certainly not to have children. Having relationships distracted one from devoting oneself to making art, she had warned.

I turned to my friend with raised eyebrows. She shrugged. "It's true, of course."

Of course it's true. It's just hard to admit.

We make decisions about the way we lead our lives. Artists or not, we opt for solitary, single-minded purity or for the messy distraction of relationships that are prone to take us miles and centuries away from our work.

We adapt. We struggle. We compromise. We concede. We conspire. We reach for transcendence.

We each have a single self. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we are able to awaken and animate a double self.

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