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
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
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.
8. In direct sunlight
"Do you go to museums a lot?" Dylan asked.
"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
"Yes, I like this park. My mother is taking me to the zoo after
we have lunch."
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.
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."
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
11. On an empty stomach
"Let me wrap this thing up," Veronica said, picking up the
"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.
"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!"
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.
"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.
"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
"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
"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
22. Out of focus
recently received her Masterís in English from Northern
Arizona University. This is her first published story.