The Franz Kline painting at the Albright Knox was the first one I’d ever seen in person. There may have been others, others I may have walked past in memories of Guggenheims past– but here was the first I ever saw, head to toe in front of me. I walked past this one at first, too, a ghost, because this guy I was with wanted to see the Picasso. This guy, he was something: on the bus I dropped my coffee mug and he picked it up and we got to talking about something or other, something about the philharmonic orchestra or industry or how Buffalo has one but not the other. I told him I was going to walk from the bus stop all the way to the Albright Knox, I had my phone, I was bundled up on an unreasonably chilly day and all set for a forced march, but this guy insisted that I take a train with him. I’d never taken the train here, but ten minutes of hearing him talk about this and that led me to think that I would let him show me.
“I live in a mansion,” he said, looking like someone who had maybe only ever slept on the front steps of one. “Have you ever been to New York? Once I got high with a German in a record store and couldn’t catch a cab until one o’clock in the morning. My uncle—I was meeting my uncle and he was like, Marty, where the hell were you? I just told him the city had gotten to me first.”
I sat next to him on the train and gaped at him, champing at a piece of gum, ($4.95, Starbucks) and suddenly wished I was the type of person who could make someone like him up. What must it be like to say such bullshit and not worry about it? I pictured myself, dripping with displaced machismo, beard and pipe firmly in place and veins pumping liquor, spinning him into existence at a typewriter in 1930. It must be nice. When we got to the museum he had to pay. He seemed upset about it, but shrugged, letting himself in with a hazy ease, muttering about how he’d never had to pay on a Friday before. He kept going on about a Picasso that was upstairs, and we headed out in search of it. I tripped on my way up the stairs: “Sorry,” I said. “You remind me of Katherine Hepburn,” he said, and nothing else.
He was terrible at looking at the paintings; I could tell at once. I stood back in embarrassment as he squinted at the Warhols, strode past the DeKoonings, asked me who Frida Kahlo was. He walked around the museum and pawed at a guard’s elbow. “Where can I see a Picasso? Where can I see a Picasso?” He spun back, leering at me, saying it must be around here somewhere. The man was deconstructing before my eyes, melting, like if he didn’t get to this Picasso, and then if he didn’t get home and have a drink soon after, he would stop being and become something that wanders around in a museum after hours, just asking—“Where? Where can I?”
The Picasso in question was brown, sad, academic. Early. He sighed at it and crossed his arms. “I just love the colors.”
He left soon after, saying he needed a glass of wine. I promised to design him a business card for his $1 Massage business and shook his hand. I returned upstairs in a daze, making a note in my phone to watch “Bringing Up Baby” as soon as I got home.
And then the Franz Kline. I came upon it in relief, glad that he hadn’t gotten to it first. The Picasso was stained, the Sol Lewitt drawings looked over in confusion– but the Franz Kline was there in all its glory, moody and violent, sad. Tall. I leaned forward as if to kiss it, taking in the heavy marks, and coming to terms with the scale of this thing. I wanted it. I imagined myself waking home with it, heavy in my arms. I supposed I would have to take the train.
On the right side of the Franz Kline is a little medallion of orange. It breaks up the black without breaking it up at all, standing back, quiet and patient. My heart nearly stopped when I saw it, and for a mad second I wanted nothing more than to rip it off the canvas, cradle it in my hands, ask it everything– I wanted to turn to the guards and jump up and down, asking–
“Did you see this? This has been here the whole time, and everyone just walks right past it–”