Once upon a time I took a hike through the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. It’s a big place. At the trailhead is a ranger station where they take your money to get in. I got past that and soon enough was in the American Wing, strolling along a well-blazed trail through exhibitions of pretty landscape paintings. Ample interpretive signage insured nobody here would get lost. Museum officials call this “a well-curated experience.” The trail was crowded with Hudson River School thru-hikers, each carrying a guidebook and tethered to an iPad. All had the same story. I was looking for something different.
At a certain point, in a dusky hallway, I ran into the drunken, raving ghost of Jackson Pollock—either that or an unorganized explosion of random energy. His eyeballs were transparent and dripping with painterly tears. Way inside those eyes I could see Thomas Hart Benton sitting in a lawn chair, drinking from a can of beer. When he saw me, he called out from the depths of those ghost eyes: “You want something different? Get off the beaten path!” He pointed to the right. I looked and saw a hallway dark and foreboding. When I looked back into the ghost eyes, Thomas Hart Benton smiled and raised his beer to me. I shrugged a “Why not?” and headed off into the dim backcountry of the museum.
I made my solitary way along a tenebrous game trail. It led to an appalling cirque. There I found a vitreous couloir and made a harrowing ascent. At last, I arrived in a strange, ill-lit room. A timeworn sign over the door read: “Visible Storage.”
It was an infernal region of uncurated doodads. Corridor after corridor of climate-controlled glass cases crammed full of teapots, toasters and Tiffany lamps, bronze statues of stalking panthers, glittering porcelain vases, goblets, flasks, and porringers, buckles, tankards, and clocks—a vast compost heap of American material culture, a bloated columbarium of consumer desire, a charnel house of artsy meaning. It was like stumbling into the scariest episode of Hoarders ever.
In a far-off corner where hundreds of 19th century American paintings were stored, I discerned an ashen figure beckoning me to come over. It appeared to be an older man, long-bearded, robust of build, and wearing a heavy winter overcoat along with a reddish-brown fisherman’s cap. His eyebrows hung like hoary lichens from granite ledges. He looked like he had just stepped out of a portrait painted by Marsden Hartley. And indeed he had—for this was the image of Albert Pinkham Ryder.
It was teetering in front of the display case housing Hartley’s now-blank canvas and frame. I say teetering because the figure only existed from the waist up. That’s how Hartley painted it—without a leg to stand on. Whenever it moved, the image cast off clouds of brittle paint flecks which fell to the floor like dandruff rain. Now this was something different! You don’t see displays like this out on the main exhibition floors.
The image had something to say. It motioned that I should stoop down for a face-to-face. Sure, why not? I stooped down. The image grinned. Even that subtle movement was sufficient to release a shower of paint flecks. I watched them float slowly in the dismal air for a while, till they sank, still slowly, toward the dismal floor. It made my nose itch. Then in a breath reeking of linseed oil and anchovies, the image of Albert Pinkham Ryder said: “I have a secret to share!” He punctuated this exclamation with a falsetto giggle.
“Go ahead,” I said.
The grin widened. Then the image said: “All the paintings in this museum attributed to me . . . are forgeries!” Another falsetto giggle. “Every single one of them!” Giggle again. Apparently the image habitually finished its utterances this way.
“You’re not exactly the real thing yourself,” I quipped pleasantly.
The image of Albert Pinkham Ryder glowered but kept talking, shedding further clouds of paint flecks with every word.
“Despite your insouciance, Sir, I shall tell you where a large cache of my genuine canvases are hidden.” No giggle this time. “Now listen up. You must proceed immediately to Brooklyn and obtain those canvases and bring them back to me, or else I will assign you an accession number and condemn you for perpetuity to be an artifact in the realm of Visible Storage!”
I had to suppress my own giggle.
“Now then,” the image continued, “you must proceed at once to this address in Red Hook —”.
Alas! Our peculiar interview came to an abrupt halt, thanks to an untimely sneeze on my part. The force of it scattered the image of Albert Pinkham Ryder, blowing it all right back onto the framed canvas in the climate-controlled glass case where it belonged. It looked a bit faded and perhaps bespittled for its excursion, but at least now it was quiet.
At that point I had had enough of Visible Storage. So I retraced my route back to the bright, curated spaces of the museum’s exhibition halls. No more ghosts, no more rogue images, no more to tell. I walked out into the unstaged sunshine of a late September afternoon on Fifth Avenue, happy I did not have to go to Brooklyn.