~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, August 15th 2012
On Christmas Day 2009, one of my best presents was a copy of Don Paterson's collection "Rain". It was a gorgeous Faber edition, blue cover, block letters, a refuge that day from the madness of my extended family. I’d just interviewed Paterson for the Financial Times, when he'd told me that the best thing about writing poetry rather than prose was that poems allow you to travel very far and very cheaply in your imagination. Last year, when I really did travel very far (and not so cheaply) to live in New York, his poems were among the few books I squeezed into a battered rucksack.
Then, in the last issue of Intelligent Life, Paterson wrote about a gallery I’d never been to in the city I was living in. His piece gave me a poet's take on the Frick, a place “so quiet, the effect is less of silence than deafness”. I had to go.
When I went on Sunday morning—for two hours you can pay what you like to go around—the pictures were there but the quietness wasn't. I couldn't work out the circuitous route that Paterson traces to his favourite paintings, so I headed for the nearest crowd, which was looking at Vermeer’s “Officer and Laughing Girl”, the painting Paterson would “most like to leave with under my arm”. Judging by the masses crowding round it, he wasn't the only one.
One of the reasons Paterson loves the Frick is for Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert”. His late friend, the poet Michael Donaghy, would stand in front of the painting for hours, and Paterson suggests doing the same. While I was there, the living room where the painting hangs, which has plenty of Henry Clay Frick's furniture and ceramics as well as his paintings, was too crowded to loiter. I headed instead to the expansive West Gallery. Corot’s “The Lake”—for Paterson "a terrific painting and an absolute downer"—is the first painting you see, right next to the doorway. But it was a more defiant painting that lured me in.
Of the very famous art here—much of it recognisable even if you've never been to the gallery—a self-portrait by Rembrandt proves Paterson’s claim that Frick was "a sucker for a strong personality”. Rembrandt painted himself more than 90 times. Whenever I’ve seen one mounted, the eyes don’t so much follow me round the room as transmit some secret message. This portrait, the artist swaddled in layers of white and yellow, hand resting on a wooden cane, showed him almost belligerent in old age.
Having looked at the exhibit of 18th-century snuff boxes which has replaced the Renoir paintings that Paterson hated—"Every canvas looks like a ten-foot biscuit tin"—I emerged on to the smelly summer streets of New York. Paterson writes of the city that "I'm always bewildered by friends who visit, and then plan five things to do every day...The city is the show." But if it wasn’t for his piece, I might have lived here for years without ever making time for one of the other shows.
Hazel Sheffield is assistant editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and a contributor to Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Christian Marclay's time is now and Cristina Kirchner doth protest