after "Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney" by Robert Henri
at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
A singular child, under the weight of crowded masterpieces
carries on a weighty conversation with the voice
in his head, the voice in the museum headphones,
the voice who calmly explains each brilliant painting
in soothing, sonorous tones, as if she were his muse
and were able to reach past the dada of childhood.
He stands before a reclining figure, his recovered childhood
in the drawing room: "the elegant woman reclines, a masterful
composition..." Observer and the observed, the artful muse
claims the boy's attention, "Yes, that's what she does." The voice
continues: "shades of blue, curvilinear shapes of the painting
drawing the viewer in..." The child removes his headphones.
"I'm not understanding you!" he yells into the headphones.
His voice rises to a feverish pitch—the urgency of childhood
asserts itself, "I'm about to lose my temperature!" Yet the painting
holds his gaze: slender ankles, high-arched feet, a masterpiece
of feminine charm. She draws him in, unsettles him, her voice
unheard by others milling about. "Darling, I am your Muse,
your dear Euterpe. In time you will know me. When you muse
about the indifference of love or the fear in hate, your ears
tuned to the music of the spheres, I will be, for you, your voice.
When you search your flutelike dreams of childhood
for that one vital image, you will see me then as I am now—
coolly recumbent, awash in light, awaiting your painting
in words, a poem that sings every drapery fold, a painting
that sings, O Figure on the Couch." The child cants, "I don't get you, Muse."
"Ah, but you will, child, you will. Someday you will write a masterpiece
inspired, perhaps, by the lyrical voice in your headphones
or the gentle swish of silk some starry night beyond childhood.
Against these ferny greens and midnight blues, you'll hear my voice."
"Nice to meet you. I see the greens and blues. I hear your voice."
"Yes, until we meet again, you'll picture me in this painting."
"I like your rings, your things." The bemused reply, "Thank you, my child,"
unleashes his cry, "I am not your child! Where is my mother?" Museum-goers
amused by the little boy talking to the painting remove their headphones
to watch his moves, as if he were an installation piece, the masterpiece
of the American century falling to pieces before their eyes. A familiar voice
answers. Forgotten headphones. Forgotten art. Forgotten muse.
A mother finds her child and leads him to other rooms, other masters.