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Head of a Young Man, Part 1

March 10, 2010

I’ve been to New York City about six or eight times since my first first trip, back in 1993 or thereabouts.  At that time, I was living in San Francisco and writing a column for a long-defunct gay magazine, San Francisco Frontiers (the original Frontiers lives on in LA).  I was just over 30 years old, and had been a popular columnist at the Bay Area Reporter until a particularly viperous young man on staff ensured my career demise there – he hated me for getting the column he thought he “deserved” for being groovier than I was, having scrubbed toilets or some such at Outweek in New York and being, more importantly, younger and much cuter than I was.  He worked in the production department and would scrawl his objections to me and my work in blue pencil all over the column layout, so that when the publisher came down to review it he would get a nice drop of poison in his ear every time he read my work.  (He didn’t get the column after I left, either, the arts editor well aware of his machinations and unconvinced of his talent.)

I moved to Frontiers, where I was able to write pretty much whatever I wanted, since I now had a following, which was only discovered in the hullabaloo over my leaving the BAR (I wrote something the publisher didn’t like, and the editor inexplicably replaced it with a rave review, in my first person voice, of a movie neither he nor I had seen and which turned out to be unspeakably awful).  After my first trip to NYC, which was certainly an eye-opener, I wrote a column in Frontiers in which I wondered what my life would have been like had I had the guts to move to the BIG city when I was 24, instead of to SF.  When I came in to meet with the editor, he greeted me with that particularly provincial huff endemic in second-tier cities – “Clearly this is your last column for the paper, as it’s obvious you would rather be living in New York.”  Well, at the time I desperately needed the $100 a month the column paid, so I backtracked furiously and explained that it was only an idea, after all, one was allowed to wonder wasn’t one (I didn’t rewrite the column). 

It always stuck with me, that episode – in my experience, San Francisco’s gay community had been populated (this is no longer true since the Internet boom, of course) by basically conservative gay men from Midwestern small towns (in a writing class at CCSF I was the only person *not* from the Midwest) who sought to recreate the small town life (with more sex, and pot) for which they were perfectly suited and from which they had only been exiled because of their gayness.  Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was so popular, so defining of that place and time, because it recreated in the form of 28 Barbary Lane that self-same small town life, where people dropped in on each other and there was a kindly grandma baking cookies and all that.  If you had arrived in SF, the dogma went, you had arrived at the end of the rainbow over the yellow brick road to the Happiest Place on Earth.  The boosterism often reached absurd proportions:  I remember vividly listening to a queen on the local NPR station enthusing about his latest trip to Paris, how it was the greatest city in the world, and the host saying “And San Francisco, of course,” and the queen panickingly saying, “yes, of course, Paris and San Francisco.”  Or when artist Nayland Blake started getting famous, and it was time to relocate to NYC – I remember the careful tone he had to take, how awesomely super SF was but that he needed “a bigger canvas.”  One had to tread so lightly around their delicate feelings there!

New Yorkers, on the other hand, feel free to hate New York, and nod knowingly at any expressed desire to flee its madding crowds – mostly because they are secure enough to know that even if you relocate, you’ll be back often enough – once you’re addicted to that constant infusion of the best of the best fresh off the boat, how can you not? 

I love how busy you can be in NYC, even by yourself.  Up and out to museums, plays, art films, nothing really much more than half an hour away from anything else, and always something to do.  I saw three plays – Venus in Fur, Present Laughter, and The Pride.  After the plays, I had time to see two films – A Prophet and The Ghost Writer.  I saw the new USS Intrepid museum, most impressively upgraded from its previous incarnation, the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library, the Charles Addams exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, and, most importantly, I made two visits to the Bronzino exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  All this in two days and three nights. 

Cultural tourism can be a shallow experience – the feeling that you’re just looking at stuff and checking it off.  It’s especially true on, say, a Saturday at the Met, which feels like a high school hallway between classes, it’s so noisy and crowded.  So I was lucky, I think, that the first thing I did on Friday was to get to the Met when it opened.  I wanted to see art at the museum, not people, and I was successful.

I’d put the Bronzino exhibit on my checklist because I’d read the review in the Times and thought, yes, that’s a wonderful thing to do in the city, and felt a little thrill of vacation-anticipation when I added it to the list.  I’d loved the gay angle (don’t know where I discovered that, since it’s not in the Times articles I could find) and this description by reviewer Holland Cotter, of a drawing in the exhibit, really piqued my interest:

Take a look at the late drawing called “Head of a Young Man” from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The sitter looks like someone the artist might have met on a beach, a surfer at Santa Monica. His neck and shoulders are bare; his hair wind-ruffled; his face, with its large, wide-spaced eyes looking straight at us, has the candid realism of a Fayum portrait.

Then I looked at that picture in the accompanying slideshow (scaled here to approximately its real-life size):


My first reaction, probably from the impact on my brain of too much advertising and er um other visual forms, was “wow he’s cute.”  But I think  subconsciously I already knew there was something different about this drawing.  Renaissance art consists mainly of recreations of Bible scenes, Classical (Greco-Roman) scenes, and portraits of aristocrats.  In the Bible and Classical scenes people look “away” – at the sky, into the distance, at nothing in particular as they ponder the sublime, their faces built to express various spiritual states of mind – guilt, terror, ecstasy, beatitude.  They rarely look at each other (God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel excepted), and I’m hard pressed to think of an instance where they look at us.  in the portraits of aristocrats, they are looking at us, ready to issue a command which we daren’t disobey.  Like the sun, we are granted the chance to gaze upon them through the camera obscura of the painting, our eyes to be downcast in their Real Presence.  But their faces are masks of power, painted to represent Serene Highness and their absolute comfort with their fitness to rule. 

That’s why it’s so interesting to contrast this drawing with the painting it became.  Here they are side by side (painting cropped):

Bronzino Bronzino2

As Holland Cotter says in the Times:

There we see the sitter at half length, his neck encircled by a lace collar; his shoulders encased in a rich black coat, his hair covered by a plumed cap. His face is more perfectly composed but looks tranquilized, inelastic, masklike; his glance is off to the side, away from us, fixed on nothing in particular. The picture is fascinating: a seductive, princely invention. But it’s more about haberdashery and attitude than about character. The face in the drawing is the one I remember, the face of someone real, someone I might actually know.

Tomorrow:  the impact this drawing had on me, and why.


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