When to Touch a Painting*

by Ruth Steinhardt


I went to college close to one of the greatest little-known art museums in America, which is the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. My sophomore year, they announced a giant party in honor of the museum’s 50th anniversary, during which the galleries would be open for 50 straight hours.

My friend Alison and I were going to go, obviously. We were going to go, late at night, and even though I was bad at pot, we were going to get high first. (Yes, this is one of those stories.) And so, at around three in the morning in the middle of the museum’s 50-hour open stretch, we set out. I don’t remember getting there. In my memory is a vague blur of climbing out of a van? None of us owned a van?

The first thing I do remember clearly is coming face to face (to facade? L O L?) with Monet’s Rouen cathedral.

Which, I mean, that gallery description: “His heavy application of paint has a sculptural quality similar to that of the cathedral itself.” All those heavy impasto whorls, the inviting fall of light, the magic-eye quality that Monet has. Oh my God, I wanted to put my whole face on it.

Since it was three in the morning, there was only one security guard leaning against the wall several feet away. I glanced at her sideways. She looked bored.

“Excuse me?” said the security guard. “You’re standing too close to the art.”

“Okay,” I said, straightening immediately. “Yes, sorry ma’am, sorry.”

Touch me, the painting said.

“Ma’am,” the guard said, more sharply. “Could you stand back, please.”

I was leaning at about a 45-degree angle toward the Monet, one finger tentatively extended, a look of greed/craftiness/anticipation on my face. I did not think she would notice.

“What?” I said.

“You can’t touch the art,” the guard said patiently.

“No ma’am,” I said. “Yes ma’am, I am not. Sorry.” I shook my head. Yes, no, we were not touching anything, ma’am, yes.

Touch me, the painting whispered.

The security guard went back to her post. I don’t know why. At this point it was clear that we were going to touch the painting. She should clearly have had us removed, or killed.

“It has a face in it,” Alison said. “It’s right — ” She moved her hand closer, trying to show me, and her finger accidentally brushed the painting.

We both froze. I think we were expecting an alarm to go “WOOP! WOOP! WOOP!” and the whole place to close down like in The Thomas Crown Affair.

Nothing happened. The guard glanced at us suspiciously, and looked away again. Then I fucking went for it.

Have you ever touched an outdoor plaster wall? You know, that smooth-pebbled texture? If you’re curious about what touching a Monet is like, it has that same pleasant roughness, a kind of glossy scrape on your thumb. But have you ever touched an outdoor plaster wall while gazing at a beautiful sunset that is somehow made of the plaster wall, and the guy who built the plaster wall has been dead for a hundred years but somehow he’s hanging out with you because you and he and God are all touching his wall?

I made a weird sound. Alison and I stared wildly at each other.

I feel like this is a good time to reemphasize that you really shouldn’t touch the art. Everybody knows that. I’m not going to be like, “Oooh, what is art for if not to transcend the boundaries of life and death? Ohhh, how can we truly experience connection with an artist except through the glorious human gift of touch?” I should have experienced it with my eyeballs, that’s how.

“I’m going to need you girls to stand at least twelve inches back from the painting,” the guard said, appearing at our side.

“Yes, no, thank you,” Alison said. “We’re going to look at other art now.” And so we left.

Ruth Jackson has never done drugs again, Mom.