Transfixed at the museum

Twenty years ago at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I was standing before Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon (1959).  I had no idea who Robert Rauschenberg was at the time but I knew I was encountering something tremendous. My grandmother was tapping — more likely stamping — her foot with impatience while I stood absolutely transfixed: brain afire, heart alive.

Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925-2008). Canyon, 1959. Combine painting. 220.3 x 177.8 x 61 cm (86 3/4 x 70 x 24 in.). Sonnabend Collection, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg / Adagp, Paris, 2006 | Image courtesy: arthistory.about.com

Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925-2008). Canyon, 1959. Combine painting. 220.3 x 177.8 x 61 cm (86 3/4 x 70 x 24 in.). Sonnabend Collection, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg / Adagp, Paris, 2006 | Image courtesy: arthistory.about.com

The artwork looked like something that had lumbered out of a dumpster — torn cardboard, rope, a dilapidated pillow and a taxidermied eagle caked in oil that looked like it might attempt lift-off and carry this whole chain of chaos behind it. The two-dimensional was being being hijacked by the three-dimensional and the whole composition seemed to reverberate with an electric energy. This sense of awe and wonderment was replaced by an urgent instinct to try to study it, memorize it, etch the experience on my brain so that I’d never forget.

We often talk about transformative museum experiences around here, so when NPR’s Robert Krulwich recently did a post on the topic, we were so pleased!

Krulwich recalls how Cezanne’s work offered a similar jolt at the MoMA nearly 60 years ago:

But with a force that felt like a fist, it jerked my head to it — almost as if it were calling out, “You!” — like it knew me. Like it wanted to pull me to it and tell me something — something personal. But what? I had no idea. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Furniture, pictures, carpets had always stayed in their place, being, after all, things. But not this thing. It had power.

Robert Krulwich encountering Cezanne. Photo courtesy of Sara Krulwich / NPR.

Robert Krulwich encountering Cezanne. Photo courtesy of Sara Krulwich / NPR.

When I left the museum I was a different boy. I had been addressed, personally addressed, by an artist whom I could never meet, who didn’t speak my language, who had already been dead for 50 years. But I didn’t care. His painting pulled me into a conversation I’d apparently been longing to have. It came at me with a force I will never forget and it began very simply. I looked at it. It looked at me, and all it said was, “Me too!”

This may be why many of us keep returning to museums — to chase these transcendent moments where time stops, your mind opens and your understanding of yourself and the world shifts. It’s the hard-to-articulate, je ne sais quoi of the museum experience and we’re curious to know: has this happened to you? Is there a particular artwork to which you keep returning? Do you have a museum memory that’s hard to shake? Let us know in the comments below…

One Comment

  1. bostonbeerman says:

    Thanks for this moment to remember a transformative museum experience. In 1993 I visited Harvard to see the Rothko murals that were originally installed in the Holyoke Center, but removed from view in 1979. The severely faded murals were rarely placed on view and as a big fan of Rothko’s work, I seized the opportunity to spend some time with them. I sat down and started writing in a sort of stream of consciousness for 2-3 hours. I have those notes somewhere in my attic, but it doesn’t really matter much what they say. I felt like I was talking to Rothko for those couple of hours…or at least I was in his head, listening to him as he painted the mural. It was pretty amazing.

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