It’s raining and I’m alone at the Whitney on a Thursday night, up on the fifth floor watching the cars stream past on the highway below. The rain has frosted the huge windows like the glass walls of a shower stall. My hair is still a little wet. I can feel the rain souring on my coat, which I have done my best to shake off downstairs after pushing my way through the heavy revolving doors.
I’m here to see the Stella retrospective, which is exactly the kind of thing I need — big, beautiful paintings and baroque sculptures jutting from the wall. Work so large it’s practically immersive. An unsinkable, grandiose show. I’ve felt adrift in my life lately, a spinning top, uncertain of my place in this city and why I’m here. I keep dreaming of the ocean. I keep looking for things bigger than me, big enough to get lost in.
When he was twenty-three — the same age I am now — Frank Stella started making the black paintings for which he became famous. They are made under extreme constraint: geometric patterns in black enamel, the bare canvas showing through between strokes. The matte paint absorbs all light in a room; it’s breathtaking to look upon. They feel young. They have a painterly, tender linearity to them, an emotional poignancy that isn’t present in his later work.
I walk through the show alone. I wish I was not alone but mostly I wish that Jake were here with me so we could talk about what we see together. Maybe this is my failure as an artist, that I must have someone with me in the presence of beauty so I might perform my adoration before it, before him. But who can read a book and not want to talk about it? Who can look at a painting and bite their tongue?
Lately when he calls I’ve found myself answering the phone with pleasant surprise, telling him, “I was just thinking of you.” I can’t tell if it’s that he has perfect timing or if I’m always thinking of him. I put the mic of my headphones close to my mouth as I cross Atlantic Avenue. “I miss you,” I say.
All my life I’ve tried to find something to disappear in, some way to divest my body from myself. It seems so much easier to exist if you just lose yourself in something or -one else. Bumps off strangers’ keys, a paper tab tucked under my tongue beneath a dazzling blue sky and clouds spinning like kaleidoscopes, long looping runs through New Haven in the dark, returning in the middle of the night aching, my thighs sore when I woke. I used to go into mosh pits without my glasses; I’d close my eyes and let the crowd buffet me around like a paper boat.
A week after we first met — I remember it was still just getting warm. We walked down Vanderbilt to get iced coffees, then sat on someone’s front steps and talked about us, the light coruscating through the trees. He wore a button-down shirt, it was blue chambray; I don’t remember what I was wearing. “I feel like I could lose myself in this, if I let myself,” I remember telling him. “Like—if we both let it, it’d be so big, so overwhelming.”
I stand by the windows and look out at the city almost as long as I look at the art. The highway like a bracelet glistening along the water; the cars each in their taut bubbles breaking the surface of the night, and to their passengers if I am even visible I must be just another figure in a big, warm window blossoming with light. I wonder if I am as interchangeable as I feel, if I will ever have a story worth telling. I look at the Hoboken skyline glittering in the rain and I look at the craggy shadows of the trucks in the parking lot and the wide, flat roofs of the old factories and industrial buildings that still have advertisements painted on the side, though in the dark they have all become indistinct.
Larissa Pham is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn