NEW MEXICO DIARY – K
I felt invigorated. I had driven about 150 miles through desert and mountain, crossing high plateaus and sandy badlands. I had hiked to the top of the slot canyon at the Tent Rocks National Monument, and, then, above to the overlook on the bluff, a vertical gain of 630 feet including one four-foot high step that I had surmounted by wriggling forward on my belly – this hike had occurred at an altitude of 7500 feet in bright sun shine. I had returned to Santa Fe safely, my rental car undented, and it was still early enough in the afternoon to tour the State art museum near the downtown plaza – a short walk from our hotel, to be sure, but one complicated by a wrong turn that I took on a side streets, motivated, perhaps, by a desire to look into a store window or traipse pass a particularly colorful beggar.
Although New Mexico has been home to several artists of indisputable greatness, Bruce Nauman and Agnes Martin, the State’s official art museum is a miserable affair – a few gloomy galleries featuring kitsch landscapes of the Taos School, a scowling Indian courtesy of Fritz Scholder, and some brooding photographs of cliff dwellings interesting only for their subject matter. The dismal quality of the collection seemed some kind of joke – sub-Remington Western Art, not even any interesting pots or ceramic wares, no Kewa or Navajo textiles, nothing at all on which to cast an eye for more than an instant before moving on to the next canyon at sunset or pueblo in the snow. Needless to say, the place was empty and the air had the sickly sweet odor of decomposing art, a scent that is midway between rancid fat and funeral flowers gone bad.
Julie immediately recognized that the museum was worthless, excused herself from the gallery where I was dutifully looking at each and every objet d’ art, and headed for the gift shop. In an airless upper room, I found myself peering at a very strange photograph, an old albumen or silver print, no longer nor wider than my thumb. A caption said that the picture had been made by A. F. Daniels in January 1875. The image showed a woman seated in a throne-like wooden chair, turned three-quarters profile to the lens. For some inexplicable reason, a large white bird, sleek as a sculpture by Brancusi was perched atop her head. The bird was a little blurred, indistinct because of the long exposure required to make the print and, therefore, smoothed-out the way old photographs abstract flowing water to a pale, ethereal looking haze, a sort of ghostly ectoplasm. But despite the bird seeming very slightly out of focus, I could see the little winged being’s beady eye and, even, perhaps imagine it to be blood-red. The unsettling thing about this photograph was that the woman did not seem to be enjoying the picture-taking – there was nothing of a lark about the silver print. To the contrary, the woman seemed to wear the bird upright on her head as a badge of shame or dishonor. The woman was unsmiling with thin, slightly crooked lips and her eyes were deeply sunken into the pale, frozen mask of her face – she had the haggard look of a fresh corpse and, indeed, there was something eerie about her rigid pose, something uncanny and unsettling.
As I studied the picture, I began to sweat. More than sweat, I became diaphoretic – my vision swam and the picture receded into a purplish haze and, then, I thought that it was possible that I was about to faint, that something had seized me and was going cast me down. I edged away from the picture and sat down on a cold bench in the empty gallery. It was true that I had eaten nothing, with the exception of a bag of cheese curls, all day and that I had drank two 16 ounce bottles of water, then, purchased another 16 ounces of Diet Mountain Dew from the Indian service station at Pojoaque Pueblo, and so, perhaps, this was why I was feeling so odd, so uneasy on my feet and so out-of-balance. I was drenched with sweat, soaking in it, a strange experience to be wet on all surfaces of my body.
After a couple minutes, I decided that I didn’t want to die in the stagnant air of the art museum and that, if possible, I would perish on the street below, possibly in front of the stoic Indian vendors sitting with their backs to the Palace of Governors watching over their wares of turquoise and silver earrings. I made my way to the rather florid stairway, a marble affair grossly oversized for the building, got to the bottom and, then, found Julie in the Gift Shop. The Gift Shop was crammed with interesting items for sale and Julie was carefully studying the merchandise. I told her that I would go outside and sit down on a bench and, so, I went outdoors where it was cooler and a fine, autumnal wind was stirring but I couldn’t find any bench on which to rest and so I stepped into the shade of the art museum, into the niche of a door that was not open to the public and leaned on the wall there waiting for Julie to come out of the Museum.
When Julie appeared, we walked down the street. The sun was toiling overhead in the clear, luminous New Mexico sky and its light affronted me – I told Julie that I felt like I was about to faint and, so, we crossed a street in the middle of the block to get out of the sun. "You have to sit down somewhere," she said. We walked halfway down Burro Alley and I saw a bar that was open. "We’ll go in here," I said.
The bar was empty. "You need to get something to eat and a glass of water," Julie said. "I’m not sure," I replied, salt sweat was pouring off my head onto my nose and cheeks.
I ordered a tap beer and we sat outside, under the darkening sky, in a tiny courtyard that looked through some wrought iron gates into Burro Alley. A wonderfully expressive and ancient Spanish door was inset in a wall leading to God knows where. The beer went down smoothly and I felt faintly electric, my senses magnified. The sensation was not altogether unpleasant. I thought that I might have another beer, but the price had been absurd – eight bucks, I think, and after I had downed the drink, I stood up to leave.
"Should we get something to eat here?" Julie asked. "No," I said. We had seven pm reservations for dinner at the Coyote, a famous Santa Fe restaurant, and I thought it would be best not dampen our appetites in advance of that meal.