Fran Lebowitz/The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The September 1981 cover of Interview magazine featured Fran Lebowitz. She looked sly and smoldering in the photo-based illustration by Richard Bernstein. Her eyes were piercing and she held a cigarette. Fran represented all that was smart and cool and she possessed the exact right balance of cranky humor. Later, the same illustration was used for the cover of her book Social Studies. However, the cigarette had disappeared––airbrushed away. Instead of leaning forward, intimately gazing at us through a wisp of smoke, Fran shrugged a hunched benediction. Or perhaps she just wanted us to shoo.

FranLebowitzI hadn’t intended to write about Fran Lebowitz. My assignment was to report on several small exhibitions currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: some recently acquired anamorphosis drawings; photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron; a group of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, and a collection of works on loan from the Hildesheim Cathedral.

I started with the Hildesheim treasures and that’s where I became distracted. A gilded copper arm reliquary of the military saint Maurice caught my eye. The hand on this reliquary makes an elegant pinching gesture. It’s clear from markings that the fingers originally held an object soldered in place. It may have been an arrow to symbolize his warrior status or perhaps a victor’s palm branch. I’ve seen only a few arm reliquaries sculpted to depict objects held in the hand. Usually, they rest on their severed forearm empty-handed as those rubber glove molds at Fishs Eddy.

RelicOn the cover of Social Studies, we know what’s missing from the nonchalant vice of Fran Lebowitz’ fingers. But the knowing isn’t much comfort. The image is disconcerting––more so than the empty hand of St. Maurice. Maurice couldn’t care less about a palm frond; Ms. Lebowitz requires a cigarette. For the rest of my museum visit Fran Lebowitz remained in my thoughts. I wondered if she still smoked. If so, where? I wondered about the people and things that have changed or have gone missing from NYC since she graced the cover of Interview in ‘81. I wondered if those changes might have caused her perfect balance of cranky humor to skew towards persistent malcontent.

My reflections made the photo show of Julia Margaret Cameron more disagreeable than it might otherwise have been. Cameron managed to hustle some illustrious characters and profiles in front of her camera, but I’m not a fan of her milky heroines. The exhibition wall text excerpted a bad review she’d received during her lifetime. It included complaints about Cameron’s technical skill. It seemed less that the reviewer lacked sensitivity to Cameron’s vision and more that the critical language of the time came up short in articulating the underlying objections to her work. I doubt Fran Lebowitz owns any tender, sepia-toned photographs; hers are all black and white. They may be grainy, but they’re stark and exact. That’d be my guess. The edgy opposite of Cameron’s gentle maidens and disheveled luminaries.

I continued on towards those Italian Renaissance and Baroque bronzes. The bronzes were as good an excuse as any to amble through the exquisite rooms of the Robert Lehman Collection. All that velvet and panel inclined me to wonder what it had been like for Fran to hang out with her millionaire chum Malcolm Forbes. I pictured them cozy among his extraordinarily distinguished artworks and furnishings smoking tight, expertly rolled joints and drinking port.

Next stop — Anamorphosis: The Playground of Perspective. These mathematically distorted images from the 1400s to 1600s are terrific and fun to look at. One of the drawings is displayed with a shiny silver cylinder that makes it possible to decipher the mutated image. Engaging as the collection is, this area of the museum is my least favorite. No matter how good the exhibition, the 2nd floor space devoted to the drawing collections feels transitory. It’s a hallway on the way to something else––something bigger and better. As currently configured the area doesn’t encourage the thoughtful engagement the displayed works deserve.

Although I’d meant to focus on the small exhibits I couldn’t help but duck in for a quick preview of the Balthus show. That’s where I discovered yet another emptied hand. Among the not yet self-conscious, drowsy, dreaming girls was one who fully, luxuriously, occupied a green upholstered chaise longue. Balthus did a small oil sketch of her languidly stretched out with a knee propped up and her arm dropped to her side. Her hand absently caresses a cat. Perhaps Balthus was jealous of the attention the cat was receiving, because in the final, large canvas the cat is absent. The girl’s hand hangs at the exact moment she seems to anticipate finding her cat, but the gesture is unfulfilled.

BalthusThe theme of my visit, inspired by the portrait of Ms. Lebowitz, focused on missing parts. It was in conjuring her companionship that prevented the day from becoming a maudlin meditation on longing and loss. That’s why the Cameron images seemed so vapid. Her models play-acted an imagined past without vigor. No blood coursed in the veins of those characters. It’s impossible for me to imagine Fran Lebowitz as listless in the face of any loss, of whatever dimension. What has been taken away, or remains out of grasp can fuel desire and passion.

Something that hasn’t gone missing is the reliable presence of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a vast place. Offered here, a humble reminder that in addition to the attention grabbing, blockbuster shows, the many small galleries contain bountiful treasures. You won’t have to shoulder your way in to see them either. There’s plenty of room. One additional note, and I’m certain you know by now, kindly, no smoking.

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