“This is Fauve as fuck.” The speaker is a kid about my age, in a dark sweater and fashionable slim-fit jeans. His companion, a taller guy with unkempt hair and round glasses, leans in close and nods his agreement.
“This is Fauve as fuck,” he says.
After a series of incoherent Google searches — “Fove,” “Foav,” “Fava Beans” — I finally come across “Fauve”: a reference to the 20th century French art style, Fauvism, which focused on painting technique and color rather than realism. Also, according to Google, the title of a Canadian short film about two boys coming of age in a surface mine. Two minutes later, I’m watching a YouTube animation of strip mining techniques.
Wait. Focus. I’m here to be cultured.
When I first look at Wassily Kandinsky’s “Improvisation No. 7,” I see an orange parrot with a mottled yellow throat. Then, a waterfall, a volcano, a starship from “Galaga” melting like hot wax into a bottle-green sea. A little figure with a fishbowl head raises a hand in greeting. It’s one of those paintings that you can’t seem to see all at once. Every moment, there’s a new color or shape materializing out of the background, something new to puzzle over. I have no idea what I’m looking at.
It definitely looks like art. It has a frame, a signature and a plaque. And it’s hanging in an art museum. Then again, so is Marcel Duchamp’s “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” which consists entirely of a snow shovel strung from the gallery ceiling. Technically, it’s a replica. At what point does an object become just an object? When can we stop looking for shapes?
“Oh look,” someone nearby says. “Jackson Pollock.”
I’ve discovered that there’s a subtitle. The painting’s full title is: “Improvisation No. 7 (The Storm).” Suddenly the image is a system in motion, violent and full of energy. Colors don’t intermingle, they clash like thunderheads, split through by dark, jagged lines. Blues and greens swirl in a deluge while Zeus hurls fluorescent orange bolts. Wind roars.
She clicks across the gallery on low suede heels. Her husband, close behind, resembles the dad from “Get Out.” She spots “Improvisation No. 7.” “Ooh these are the landscapes.”
Is that it then? It’s a landscape?
Her husband shakes his head “I couldn’t explain this one. I literally couldn’t.” He jerks a thumb at “Multicolored Circle,” another Kandinsky. “I’ll give him credit for that one. That’s got something.”
A little boy in a crimson turtleneck claps his hands and chants tunelessly. “Jack, son Pollock — Jack, Jack, son Pollock. Jack, son Pollock — Jack, Jack, son Pollock.”
Wassily steps back and looks from the canvas, to the parrot a few yards ahead of him, then back to the canvas. “Fuck,” he says. “That’s not right at all.” He rubs at the streak of white with a rag. “No, no, no.” He looks down. How did he even get purple on there? The startled parrot ruffles itself and shrieks. Wassily fumbles with his brushes. Maybe if the white thing is a branch, he can add some green like …
The next day, the garbage collector encounters a defeated Kandinsky waiting at the curb with his canvas. “New masterpiece, Wassily?”
“It was,” Wassily sighs.
“Huh,” the garbage collector takes the painting. “I kinda like it. It’s a farm, right?”
“Oh. I just thought, with that green bit there, and I thought those were hedges …”
Wassily massages his temple.
The garbage collector shrugs. “Either way, it’s nice. There’s definitely a mood to it.” He turns to carry on up the road.
“Wait.” Wassily holds out a hand. He takes the painting and stares. “Do you see anything else?”
The guard touches her earpiece. “I’d like to report a touch. I’m before post nine, so no numbers but it’s “Head of a Jester” by Pablo Picasso. Roger, no damage.” As the perimeter is secured, “Improvisation No. 7” is bustled into a waiting limo. “Improvisation No. 7” watches paramedics rushing towards the fallen “Head of a Jester” and thinks, “That was meant for me.”
The most noticeable images fall away. Forget the parrot, the swan, our friend with the fishbowl head. See mountains capped in white racing towards you from the blue. See a campfire, the particular way that green merges into blue, a palm tree, a cell tower, a pair of twisted Jordans, a heart yellow as a sand pear. Find and lose, make and unmake.
My favorite mark: Follow the swan’s graceful neck, to a perfect thumbnail swatch of white and teal in the crook of a jagged olive-green leaf. I can’t imagine what it is. I don’t need to imagine what it is. Sometimes paint is just paint.
The brown-haired woman tucks her coat under one arm, steps closer to the Kandinsky until her shadow falls on the jagged signature, and says to nobody, “I love this.” She adjusts the coat, and meanders away, past the fidgeting guard and the oscillating snow shovel.
Probably to look at the Pollocks.