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Sacha Siskonen

22 Ways of Looking at Chagall

Paul had once overheard a rumor at the Guggenheim that there were exactly twenty-two ways of looking at a Chagall.

1. Upside down

He had been standing next to two men, who incidentally, were not looking at a Chagall at all. They were looking at a piece of African art on display on the Guggenheim's swirling ramp. The older of the two men, though they both looked old, said, "There are exactly twenty-two ways of looking at a Chagall." He then listed each one as the two shuffled up the ramp. Paul followed them and listened.

Paul woke up that morning feeling hopeless. He lay in bed staring at the blank, white ceiling. It was the death of something, and he couldnít shake the feeling that he needed to mourn. Well, there was only one thing to do when he felt like that. So he forced himself out of bed, pulled on some paint-splattered jeans, and a black t-shirt he found on the floor next to his mattress. He brushed his teeth, and ran a comb through his dark, curly hair. He rubbed a hand over his stubbly cheek, but decided it wasnít worth shaving. The living room, which was also the bedroom and the kitchen of his studio apartment, looked bare, liked heíd been robbed. The paintings were gone. The easel was empty. They were all at the gallery waiting to be delivered to their new owners. Paul felt nauseous. He thought of the show the night before. His friend, Veronica, worked at the gallery, and had convinced its owner to let Paul have the show, just a one night thing since nobody knew who the hell Paul Black was. But Veronica had a lot of friends, and they had friends, and somehow the place was packed. Heíd sold almost everything, and what didnít sell the gallery owner wanted to keep on the walls. And now Paul was alone with his paint and a stack of blank canvases. Another wave of nausea made him brace himself against the old, ratty couch. He fed the cat before he left.

Holly Golightly had Tiffanyís, but only the Moderns could soothe Paul. So when he was feeling anxious, or depressed heíd hop a train into the city and spend the morning at the Museum of Modern Art trying to look at Chagall in some of the twenty-two ways heíd heard one could.

2. From three inches away

Paul got on the F train at York Street and rode it up to Rockefeller Center. He had to be in the city by two anyhow, so he had a good three hours to hang around the MoMA and try to get his mind off how empty he felt. An older woman, who had bought one of his paintings, wanted him to deliver it to her himself that afternoon. Paul thought this was an odd request, but decided he shouldnít alienate one of his first buyers by refusing. On the train, he thought about the check heíd be getting. The gallery owner had marked up the prices on his paintings so high Paul thought nothing would sell. But they had. Veronica said people liked to buy overpriced art. They thought it must be good if it was expensive. Paul wondered if it would be enough money to allow him to quit his job tending bar at a place in Chelsea. It was a gay bar. Heíd worked at straight bars too, but found that the tips were better, from both men and women, at gay bars. He always took his shirt off at midnight.

At the MoMA, he took the elevator up to the fifth floor where the Modernists were. It was a Wednesday morning, so the museum wasnít crowded. Paul passed tourists conversing in their native tongues, and groups of school children chattering in their high-pitched voices. He stopped in front of Cezanneís The Bather. He admired the blue, green and violet colors of the landscape. He identified with the bather, except he would never wear so small a suit. There was a group of uniformed children in front of The Starry Night, so he skipped it and went on to Picassoís Les Demoiselles díAvignon. Iíll never be this good, Paul thought. And somehow the idea was comforting to him. He continued on and didnít stop until he got to Chagallís I and the Village. It captivated him, and had since heíd first seen it when he was fifteen years old: the green face of a man staring into a cowís eyes, the tiny village at the top of the canvas, two of the houses and a woman inverted, the colors. It was hideous and beautiful all at once, and at fifteen it had made him want to paint.

3. In black and white

Paul stood in the middle of the room and looked at the Chagall. A woman came and stood near him. "Dylan," she called with a smooth French accent. A small boy of nine, a red bandana holding down his dark curls, walked to her.

"Oui?" he said. Dylanís mother spoke to him in French. Paul could not understand her words, but he saw her bend down close to her son, and point to I and the Village. Dylan stepped in front of Paul, cocked his curly head to the side, placed a small hand on his slight hip, and looked at the painting. He liked it. It was like a cartoon on TV frozen on the wall. He liked the colors, and the green man, and the little houses. He liked the way his eye moved around the canvas, though he didnít know that that was what he liked. He just liked it.

4. From across a crowed room

Paul scanned the back of Dylanís body from the bandana down to his sneakered feet. The boyís mother, mistaking Paulís awe for annoyance, scolded him in French. Dylan turned around to face Paul, and sheepishly said, "Excuse me," with a heavy accent. Paul just stared at him, and shook his head. He couldnít look away. The boy had olive skin, and large green eyes ringed with thick black lashes. He wore jeans, a Yankeeís t-shirt. Dylanís thin, pink lips gave a sly smile, as if he were well aware of his looks, and was used to being stared at by strangers.

5. In Paris

Dylanís mother took his hand. She was used to people staring at him. He was a striking boy, but it always made her uneasy. She led him into the next room to look at a sculpture. Paul wished heíd thought to bring his sketchbook. He wanted to paint the boy, but that wasnít something you just asked French people in museums. Can I paint your son? Sheíd have him arrested. Paul wandered around the fifth floor looking at the paintings, but hardly seeing them. When Dylan and his mother took the escalator down to the fourth floor, he followed them. They looked at Andy Warholís Campbellís Soup Cans and the other more modern art. Then they descended another floor to see the photography. Paul followed behind them pretending to be interested in the art.

6. In motion

When they left the museum, Paul followed them out onto West 53rd Street. They walked up 5th Avenue. Heíd never tailed anyone before, and he wasnít sure if he was doing it right. But they never looked back, so it didnít really matter. Paul pushed through crowds of tourists and business people making their way up and down 5th Avenue. He overheard bits of conversations, many of them in languages other than English. They walked passed Bergdorf Goodmanís, past Trump Tower, past Tiffanyís, past the Plaza. As they neared Central Park, Paul caught the faint smell of horses in the light breeze. He followed them into the park. They took a path to the pond and Dylanís mother sat on a bench in the warm September sunlight. Dylan stood at the edge of the pond. He broke off pieces of a small stick heíd picked up and threw them into the water.

7. While eating fruit

Paul walked a little way down the path, and sat on another bench. He just wanted to look at Dylan, to try to memorize him so maybe he could paint him from memory later. The boy was archetypal. He was Grecian in a decidedly French way. He was perfect. Paul would paint him with a bicycle, or perhaps nude. He could do a whole series of pictures of children. Maybe his sister would let his nieces sit for him. He could paint Isabelle jumping rope, and Daphne playing jacks. For the first time that day, Paul felt hopeful. He would paint again. The walls of his tiny apartment would be full of paint-caked canvases. It would just take time. He breathed deeply, and looked at his watch. Almost one. I should get going, he thought, but when he looked up, Dylan was standing in front of him.

"You were at the museum," he said. Paul nodded. "Do you live here?" Paul nodded. "I live in Paris, but I like it here. Iím going to live here when I grow up. My father is American, so I am half American." Paul didnít know what to say.

"Cool."

8. In direct sunlight

"Do you go to museums a lot?" Dylan asked.

"Yeah."

"Me too. My mother takes me." The boy shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "This is my first time in New York since I was a baby."

"Oh?"

"Yes, I like this park. My mother is taking me to the zoo after we have lunch."

"Neat."

Dylanís mother saw him talking to the man they had seen at the museum. He was always doing things like that. Heíd talk to anyone, especially in English. He loved to show off his English. He talked to every English-speaking tourist he could find in Paris. Her instinct was to call him back to her, to keep him always at her side, but her husband said it was good that Dylan wasnít shy. He didnít want his son to grow up afraid of the world.

"Dylan," she called.

"It was very nice to meet you," the boy said formally to Paul.

"Yeah, you too." Dylan ran back to his mother, and they walked further into the park.

9. Squinting

Paul got up and headed for the gallery. He took the R train downtown to the NYU stop and walked the few blocks to the gallery. Veronica was waiting for him.

"Hey Paulie, howís it feel to be famous?" Veronica was like that.

"Terrible," Paul said honestly. She gave him a sympathetic smile.

"So, this lady wants you to deliver the picture she bought. Weird. Iíve never heard of anyone asking for that before." She tucked a long strand of strawberry-blond hair behind her ear. "The painting is in the back room. You can take the galleryís van." She pulled the keys out of her pocket and jingled them in front of Paul.

"I donít have a license," Paul said. Heíd never bothered to get one. It was one of the many things his father still scolded him for, even though Paul was nearing 30. "Iíll just take the subway."

"With that giant painting? No, Iíll have Phil drive you."

"Itís fine, Veronica. Iíve done it before, a million times." Veronica shrugged.

10. From above

Veronica led him into the back room. They passed a few of his paintings hanging on the gallery walls. He missed them.

"Mr. Simon wants to know when you can bring in more pictures?"

"There are no more. This was it. There are some older ones stored in my parentís basement, but I donít know if heíd want those."

"Heíll want them, trust me. Bring them, and start painting more. Quit your job, Paulie. Youíre gonna be huge." Paul wasnít sure if that was her talking, or Mr. Simon, or if was true, or if heíd never paint another thing. The hope heíd had while looking at Dylan was fading.

11. On an empty stomach

"Let me wrap this thing up," Veronica said, picking up the painting.

"No, donít. Itís easier to carry this way."

"But itíll get ruined."

"No, itís not raining, or anything. Itíll be fine." Paul took the canvas from her. It wasnít that big. When he rested it on the floor it came up to just above his stomach.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Where am I going?"

"Here, I wrote down the address for you." Veronica handed him a small piece of paper. "Itís up by the park on the west side."

"I was just up there," Paul said.

"Oh? The buyer is Mrs. Adeline Hammond. Sheís a widow with a vast fortune. She buys a lot of shit from us, so donít piss her off."

"Iíll try not to."

12. While playing the piano

Paul carried the painting to the subway. He got on the 4 at Astor Place. The train was pretty much empty. He sat down with the painting facing away from him. A few stops later a young woman got on. She sat across from him, and he saw her looking at the painting.

When the train stopped, before the doors even opened, she saw the painting, and the head of the man who was behind it. In the middle of the white canvas was a soldier in a green uniform with orange butterfly wings on his back and an AK-47 in his hands. She couldnít stop looking at it, and wondered if the man behind it was the artist, or if he had just bought it.

"Thatís lovely," she said. It was from a collection Paul had done of soldiers with various animal characteristics. "Did you paint it?" The train swayed back and forth as they sped under the city.

"Yes."

"What do you call it?" The woman leaned forward in her seat.

"Monarchy," Paul said. She laughed.

"Perfect. Where are you taking it?"

"Itís been sold. Iím delivering it to its new owner."

"How exciting, congratulations!"

"Thank you."

The next stop was hers, and she smiled at him, and said congratulations again as she got off the train.

13. By candlelight

Paul got off the train at 68th Street. Mrs. Hammond lived on 66th by the park. The building had a doorman who questioned Paul in the lobby, and looked suspiciously at the painting. He called Mrs. Hammond to announce Paulís arrival, then sent him up to the penthouse in a spacious elevator.

14. Under a cloudless sky

Paul rang the bell on Mrs. Hammondís door and a maid let him in. The maid took the painting from him and leaned it against the wall in the large, marble-floored hallway. She led him into a living room with a view of the park, sat him down on the sofa, and offered him a drink, which he accepted. She went to the kitchen to fix it, and Paul was alone in the large room. The furniture looked French, or maybe Italian. The walls were covered in paintings, large and small. One caught his eye. The colors were vibrant and the figures looked familiar. He got up to look at it. It was a smaller Chagall. Paul had never seen one in a private home before.

"All art is quite useless." The voice startled him, and he turned around to see a woman draped in a silk, floral robe.

"Pardon me?"

"Itís like Oscar Wilde said, ĎAll art is quite useless,í" Mrs. Hammond repeated, then laughed. "You must be Paul Black, the artist," she said.

"Yes." Paul stepped quickly across the room to shake her hand.

15. Wet

"Please call me Adeline." Mrs. Hammond was tall, and looked much younger than her 62 years. She had short, red hair that fell softly against her face which she periodically pushed back from her forehead with her palm. She was tall and slim, and had been a dancer as a young woman until the late Lucius Hammond had spotted her on stage one night, and, after a brief courtship, convinced her to marry him. Their affair was a short one; Lucius died only ten months after the wedding, leaving his vast fortune to her. Though she had had many lovers since his death, she had never remarried. Instead, she bought art.

"I was just looking at your Chagall," Paul said.

16. From eleven feet away

"Stunning, isnít it?" Mrs. Hammond responded. "Please, sit down. Is Marie getting you a drink?"

"Yes, thank you, she is." Paul sat on the delicate looking sofa.

"I love your work. Itís remarkable." Mrs. Hammond sat down next to him.

"Thank you," Paul said. Marie brought the drinks, two glasses of red wine, and disappeared back into the kitchen. Mrs. Hammond put her arm over the back of the sofa, and leaned towards Paul.

"Where did you study?"

"The Rhode Island School of Design." Mrs. Hammond was impressed.

"Youíre kidding? I studied theater and dance at Brown. But that was many years before you got there, Iím sure. I have very fond memories of my time in Providence."

"I liked it too. I met a lot of interesting people." Paul stood up and walked to the large windows. "This view is amazing." Paul looked out at the park and the city beyond it.

"My late husband, Lucius, loved this apartment." Mrs. Hammond sat on the sofa, her bare feet tucked under her. She rested her head in her hand. "Is all your work so political?"

"No, not all of it."

17. In Russia

"I had a difficult time deciding between the solider with the butterfly wings and the one with the dragonfly wings. While I was trying to pick, some asshole snapped up the dragonfly. All for the best, though. I do love the butterfly solider." Paul looked at the woman reclining on the sofa. He wondered what she had looked like when she was young. She must have been gorgeous. Mrs. Hammond noticed Paul staring at her, and raised an eyebrow.

18. While wearing a hat

"Iíd love to paint you," he said. Maybe it was the empty studio waiting for him in Brooklyn that made him feel so desperate for subjects.

"That might be fun." Mrs. Hammond smiled, and looked at the disheveled young man standing by her window. It looked like he was staring through her rather than at her. Heís probably imagining the painting, she thought. Mrs. Hammond had known many artists of all kinds, and had seen that look on many of their faces many times. She had, perhaps, even had the look herself when she was young, and practicing her steps before a show.

19. From behind

Paul thought she could sit by the window and the view of the park could frame her. It would have to be in the late afternoon when the sun was beginning to set. The light would be splendid.

"Do you only think about art?" she asked.

20. Over water

"What? Iím sorry?" Mrs. Hammond laughed at him, and said, "Never mind. I shouldnít have bought your picture. The worst thing you can do for an artist is to give them money to make their life easier in any way." She looked at Paul. He was paying attention now. "Oh sure, you have to eat, but once youíre able to support yourself, thereís really no reason to create art."

"I hope thatís not true."

"Iíve seen it before." She was vocalizing all of Paulís worst fears. It wasnít that heíd never paint again. Heíd just never paint anything worth looking at again. "Thatís why I wanted you to come today. Iíve seen too many young painters ruined. Donít let it happen to you, Paul. Remember what Chagall said, ĎWork isnít to make money; you work to justify life.í" Easy for her to say, Paul thought, looking around the penthouse.

21. While standing on one foot

Paul left feeling worse than he had that morning. He decided to take the long way home and walked along the edge of the park. The weather was fine and Paul walked slowly. Taxis and buses sped up and down 5th Avenue. It occurred to him that he hadnít eaten anything all day.

22. Out of focus

 


Sacha Siskonen recently received her Masterís in English from Northern Arizona University. This is her first published story.

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