Margaret Neumann, What You Want
Georgia, my then 6-year-old daughter, and I clip on earrings and head to the Dior: From Paris to the World show at the Denver Art Museum. It’s January. A new year and all that. I saw the Alexander McQueen documentary last year and so I understand how clothing can be so beautiful that it kills someone. Before, I would have rolled my eyes at a display of more than 200 dresses. Georgia, however, needed no cinematic convincing. We love the show. We love how it goes on and on. How one room is terrifying in its gothic exasperation and extravagance—wall-to-wall black frocks accompanied by some deep House of Dior dirge-fugue as if the clothes were mouthing the word “please” in the language of death. And how in a further room a circus of Gianfranco Ferré and stupid Galliano trembles—how dare a man make me care about a celebrity only because of what is wrapped around her.
Then, Margaret Neumann, a bit later in January. The whole of Denver’s RedLine empty but for her huge mood along the walls. When I hear “woman” and “moody” come from some asshole’s mouth I want to punch them with Neumann’s painting What You Want or maybe, more, use a corner of it to stick them in that missing rib. What Neumann decides to detail and what she decides to blurt is a cosmic decision guided by her wit. God, I trust her work. Georgia is with me here, too. She draws waterfalls in her notebook.
And then even later in January, lucky as an at-large-conman in a movie, I go to New York and see Liliana Porter: Other Situations at El Museo del Barrio. So much and and and and and and never enough Porter. I laugh at her Martyr, a photograph of a hunk of Brie labeled “Joan of Arc 3K 60% Brie” and kneel in front of Porter’s Trabajo Forzado (Mujer barriendo)
That trip I jaw-dropped before Gloria Maximo and Milford Graves at the Queens Museum’s Queens International. Graves! Milford! Milford Graves! I heard him play once. He is a genius machine who turns you into a genius machine, shows you how your capillaries are melodies and the whole damn corpse of you vibrates in sympathetic love with sound. Maximo’s film Client States plays in another room. She flails her body against the Platonic ideal of a desk. She’s bureaucratically alive like a robot. It’s funny. It’s funny like how you feel after a panic attack. Sure is funny how I thought I was going to die, huh?
And then finally—because it is impossible to catch your breath in New York—an afternoon with my friend, the poet Jean-Paul Pecqueur, at the New Museum. We see Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel and her panty-hosed, open-legged, raunchy, unsex-symbols. Chairs that would actually masturbate themselves beneath you if you sat on top squirming uncomfortably, uncrossing and recrossing your legs, wishing you never got tired, never had to rest, never had to sit down in the first place, and yet pretending not to feel the seam of your jeans scrape against your clit. And how could it be that before this we were at Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room—a place where no one could ever be Lucas-snookered? Where I certainly didn’t imagine a thousand, naked bodies disintegrating into soil so rich that I should be beaten for using the word “rich”—all of its detestation and greed and elective surgery—anywhere near a room full of earth. A room full of earth. Say it with me. A Room Full of Earth. If you eat earth from The New York Earth Room you do not become immortal, you die just like the rest of us. Isn’t that great?
In Marfa in February I pace inside of every Dan Flavin untitled (Marfa project) building the Chinati Foundation has—is it 12, 57, 200 bunkers? It doesn’t matter; it’s the right number. I record my echoing footfalls and when I listen to the recordings now I hear the one neon tube that flickered on and off and on and off. I hear it. But I hear it buzzing from my shoes.
And holy, weird Marfa, I watch Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s film, Foley, at Ballroom Marfa, part of The Way You Make Me Feel: AFI 2018 show. A hand swings a hammer at the other hand flat on a table and…ALMOST! Hands thrust a watermelon toward impalement atop a pointed trophy and ALMOST! Accompanied by the wrong sounds—maybe the soundtrack for the movie in the theater next door? DID SOMEONE MAKE A MISTAKE AND CAN THEY MAKE IT FOREVER. Art that makes me laugh feels like turning on the ceiling fan after summer sex.
June killed me because Margaret Kilgallen. She is a muse mother with the show, that’s where the beauty is, at the Aspen Art Museum. My heart was open. I came that way. Then my heart was opened. Georgia actively giving me space in the rooms because she knew I had to pray. And for an hour afterwards, G and me at the playground together as she attempts to make her way from the end of the rope bridge to the edge of the climbing structure. A six-inch gap horizontally, but mentally a life choice. A marriage. A divorce. A move to Los Angeles. She never makes it across and we vow to come back one day to do it.
Later in June, I feel broken, maybe alone from a lover. I attend the Annual Library Association Conference in Washington DC with an afternoon to spare for the Hirshhorn and Reynier Leyva Novo. I’ll tell you what, I wrote on an Instagram post of a photo of one of his pieces from the series The Weight of History, I’m either headed for a nervous breakdown or well, nothing, that’s probably what is happening. But that’s beside the point. This is one in a series of Novo’s works in which he has calculated the volume of all the ink in an authoritarian text and applied it to the wall. This one’s “Mein Kampf.” There were several smaller ones: الكتاب الأخضر and Государство и революция, for instance. The end of irony, my ass. Modern life is dire. The lengths we go to depict that are greater than I ever thought necessary. I understand why people have their heads up their asses. It’s quiet up there. But you know what? It stinks.
And later, you weird, weird Phillips Collection, I get awed. One of Griselda San Martin’s photos in her The Wall series and Glenn Ligon’s Double America 2 reflected in the glass of it. What a heavy building—old, unyielding—and so, bonkers to think it could hold this ever-flexing joke of America. And yet.
July—I can barely keep up with myself. Another conference. For fuck’s sake an INSTITUTE (who am I) at HARVARD (who hate I) and another afternoon of looking. I search the MIT campus, stumble on an Olafur Eliasson, a J. Meejin Yoon, and a Tony Smith to find my life’s Calder: La Grande Voile (The Big Sail). So sharp and mean but not angry. How did I know it would make me cry? It’s a bunch of metal a man slapped together in his ample time, with his grants and fellowships, and his woman to cook his dinner and wash his clothes. And yet I spend an hour looking at it from every angle possible until the only one left, I realize, is from above. I lower myself onto it. Onto its talons. First, the tallest one, through my thigh, then when it cracks bone, the next tallest begins to spread my chest open, and on and on like this until I am impossibly stuck. Pierced through at four or five points. I think I feel happy. They get a cherry picker to remove me. That day, I failed to find the Beverly Pepper and I regret it.
30 minutes before closing, back in Denver, on August 24, 2019, the last day of the show, I beg to be let into Museo De Las Americas’s Espacio Liminal show—I’ll be out in 25! I say and spend it all watching a Frank T. Martinez painting. Bright colors stripe like happy sins from the black raincoat around their shoulders. The coat forgives them but not enough to let them run free.
Frank T. Martinez
September comes. Georgia, freshly seven, and I go to The Light Show at Denver Art Museum. We are astounded by Lucas Samaras’s Corridor #2, a completely mirrored 50-foot long tunnel. We are thrilled to put on booties before we enter. We are scared because it is dark. We put our hands out in front of us so we don’t bounce our bodies off of an infinite yet somehow nearing distance. But what really, Georgia says, “absorbs” her is Tony Oursler’s Zero. A baby doll with a video screen face lodged in a suitcase beneath the museum stairs whispering dreadful and painful and hilarious things. She sits there for 40 minutes. I watch her, absorbed, for 40 minutes. I could watch her, absorbed, for days, for months, for years. Your child, to you, is endlessly fascinating, endlessly watchable.
September still comes, as it does, that abusive month of endings and beginnings. Is summer over or is school starting? Is fall unfurling itself or do we bury the bulbs? Georgia and I visit the Vicki Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver and see Renée Rendine’s piece trace. Rendine is inside of a dome shaped honeycomb made of embroidery hoops covered in a water-soluble film each tied together with a cable tie. We sit in front of her semi-private shell and watch her wet finger slowly work its way through the middle of each hoop. It’s an inside out, nut-job, pointillist, human beehive. It is beautiful, Georgia and I agree, in its random, accumulating glimpses of the person inside and in our heavy desire to be in there with her.
And then, finally, November. I am somehow, miraculously, falling in love with someone far away and I am overcome with the pleasurable panic of fantasy realized. Georgia and I go to New York, and to the Whitney, to see Slugs’ Saloon, mostly, but really any and all of Jason Moran’s love odes to jazz. I am desperate for these venues he recreates. I wish I could have been at any of them—Three Deuces, the Savoy—sweating at those shows, to be a man there then, to get my ass kicked for getting too drunk and talking shit, but what else could I have done but pour shot after shot down my throat with Mingus’s bass in my face. Slugs’ is so small, impossibly small, like conception.
And now it’s the last day of December; the end of just one year. And still somehow the love with this new, far away stranger thrives. In a way, isn’t it so simple? Two people decide to pull the necks of their shirts down and show each other their hearts. In another way, it’s like guessing the number a dead man is thinking.
Sommer Browning is a poet and writer living in Denver. Her books include Backup Singers (Birds, LLC; 2014), Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC; 2011), Poet-Librarians in the Library of Babel (Litwin Books, 2018), You’re on My Period (Counterpath, 2016), and several others. She is the founder and director of GEORGIA, a non-commercial art space she runs out of her garage when it’s warm. She works as a librarian at Auraria Library.