by Emily Alexander
Late summer soon after moving to the city, I take the train and wander until I have to pee. The streets smell vaguely of garbage and excrement. I don’t know where I am. Sunglasses, cobblestone, the sure strides of locals and the tourists’ chatter, wide eyes. A cop car parked on 5th Avenue has its windows rolled down, cigars attached to the arms of faceless shadows hanging out of them, smoldering into the heavy air. A woman with bright pink sneakers jogs by.
Heat, humidity. I wear a green tank top and denim shorts and watch men watch me cross the street. I veer left into Central Park and find a bench to sit on. My phone tells me the Museum of Modern Art is relatively close and I can buy a ticket for the 12:30 timeslot for $25. I enter my credit card information and pull up a map of the city on my phone, the little blue dot beaming my direction in a triangular shape. I turn slowly, staring at the screen, imagining how lost and only visiting I must seem to the passersby passing by with their dogs in little heatproof shoes, until the triangle is oriented in the right direction. I glance up into the thick white air and start walking.
How to be a person who is looked at.
John Berger in his 1972 BBC series: “Men dream of women; women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women; women watch themselves being looked at.”
“Knowing that her life prospects may depend on how she is seen, a woman learns to appraise herself first,” writes Sandra Lee Bartky in Femininity and Domination. A woman is both “seer and seen.”
At work I fumble a tray of glasses but do not drop them. I look up to see if anyone has witnessed my mistake and meet the eyes of the bartender, for whom I harbor an almost crush, an eager affection. He’s shaking his head. We laugh at me together for a long silent moment. This recognition, shared humor, the relief of being seen.
You can call anything beautiful: the chipped vase I picked up on the sidewalk, the dog hair on the couch, the masked woman in the grocery store testing mangoes for ripeness. This is a complex beauty. Aesthetic ideal versus the narrative arc of marred beauty—the depth, richness there.
Wiping down a table the other night while staring at a beautiful woman eating fried chicken across the patio, wishing I had her tiny waist, clear skin. Wishing I was smart enough not to. How childish I feel, so preoccupied by tiny waists, clear skin—I should have grown out of this by now, or my intellectual interests should have rendered these petty concerns irrelevant. And yet: is it actually naivete, not intelligence, that leads one to believe beauty is inconsequential? I cannot think my way out of this awareness, this desire.
People have called me beautiful my whole life; I notice when they don’t. I am white, blonde, slim, tall. Who am I to write this. It’s not interesting: these concerns, this sloppy line of self-indulgent half-analysis, half-feeling. I know this, and still I obsess, hold my stomach in for so long I’m nauseous by the end of the night.
I stack plates on my arms and carry them to the patio where customers complain about the bugs and the heat, made worse by the air conditioning unit humming along and the cheap plexiglass roof. My reflection in the glass door every time I rush in or out. I study it carefully.
My mealtimes erratic working nights; I eat a salad at 11pm and wake up in the middle of the night starving, sharp pain in my abdomen, heart racing. I cannot feel full; I cannot stop feeling my jeans tight against my thighs, pressing textured seams into my skin. This fixation, how consumed I have become by it. In the window near the entrance to my apartment building, my calves are wide and clumsy and I find it suddenly impossible to live. Through the entrance, past the mailboxes, down the long hallway toward the stairs, a new reflection in the window there: I am lanky and thin. I can’t stand myself, how this makes me abruptly okay again.
It’s so banal, telling you this, and selfish, and impossible: the attempt to make a shape of this obsession, to give it a certain form when what it is is just a flailing that repeats and repeats.
An account on Twitter that exclusively posts Agnes Martin paintings. They show up sporadically on my feed—precision interrupting the chaos, a brief puncturing quiet. I love the titles: “Night Sea,” “Drift of Summer,” “I Love the Whole World.”
Martin is best known for her minimalistic abstractions, grids etched into large canvases, subtly textured straight lines. “Drops,” with its pin-like shapes so disparate from the sloppy anarchy of weather and yet evocative of watching it come down. Olivia Laing writes in The Guardian that Martin was interested less in the world itself than she was in “the abstract glories of being: joy, beauty, innocence; happiness itself.”
Inside the museum it is cool and crowded. I rush to the bathroom, pee, wash my hands in the automatic sink, stare at myself in the huge mirror. My face covered in a thick white mask, arms long and reaching into the sink, causing my shoulders to curve inwards.
Turning away from myself, I face myself again, this time in a full-length mirror near the paper towel dispenser. I look tall, I think, and thinner than I was just seconds ago, and earlier too, in the mirror hanging on the back of my own bathroom door. I doubt the reflection, it’s fluctuations and imprecision. My body evasive, angled, how desperate I am to make it pinnable, pinned down, definite. Then maybe I’d know how to hold it, or exist here within it.
In Berger’s BBC series, he speaks of the difference between nakedness and the nude figure: “To be naked is to be without disguise,” he says, patterned shirt, blue background. “To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body turned into a disguise, a disguise which cannot be discarded.”
A kind of paralysis; how trapped I feel in this visible body, the knowledge of its visibility. (Invented though it may be; perhaps not everyone is watching me as I assume, or fear, they are—narcissism as self-consciousness, self-consciousness as narcissism.)
As both watcher and the watched thing, one invents a kind of agency—the objectified becomes subject by recognizing their objectification. And yet, it is a self-referential, inhibited, narcissistic agency. Trapped in a cycle of interiority and insecurity, the body does not feel or act or respond to the external world itself, but rather to the world’s perception of it, the world always in relation to the self.
How exhausting it is, these monotonous calamities, repeating themselves again and again. My body reflected in a window—angled-in knees, convex midriff, shoulders rounded like two large smooth river rocks. The disparity between the visible self and the experienced one. I never knew I held my chin like this; a sense of exclusion, the shame of ignorance and naivete.
Yesterday in an H&M dressing room on the Upper East Side, right near the train station. Mirrors on every wall. Myself surrounded by myself. Stretch marks, sloppy tattoos, bra strap slipping off my shoulder. These hours of thick silence—I’d spent the morning wandering, alone, taking notes, mismatched monologues stuttering on in my head, until I felt not so much separate from my body but so far inside it I had to dig my way out.
I watched myself turn in $35 jeans, hold my stomach in, stand on tiptoe, lower, look up at myself surprised again by those eyes, ostensibly mine. I imagine myself a body moving through space—a perceived thing, watched, evaluated; a site upon which to lay one’s gaze—and yet I am so surprised to find myself here in the florescence and smudged walls—a body who is me who is moving through space, turning, watching, thinking, turning.
What a comfort it is to intercept an outsider’s gaze with one’s own. To preempt the disdain or—worse—apathy of the other with one’s own microscopic dissections. To be capable of seeing oneself in such minute, critical detail is to wrest power from the powerlessness of being looked at, taken in, caught.
Now the familiar overwhelm of museums—people, echoes, dead ends and placards. How quickly all my grand plans of looking become subsumed by physical discomfort. I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I breeze past the masterpieces.
A Georgia O’Keefe quote posted to the left of her “Abstraction Blue”: “I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught—to accept as true my own thinking.” I send a photo of Duchamp’s bicycle tire to Jade and remember sleeping next to him in college and looking up “Nude Descending Staircase (No.2)” when he told me to, the shuddering lines and shaky movement.
Martin’s “Friendship:” a gold canvas, a grid etched into it, lines vibrating in a clumsy attempt at perfection. In the museum I stand at a distance, the six-foot square graspable in its entirety, glowing warmly through each precise rectangle. How stark the contrast between the white museum walls and the luminescence of that gold, lights pooling on the canvas. And up close the slight stuttering of the lines, the gold leaf torn, streaks of red, gradations, smudges. A zoomed-out precision made up of crooked attempts.
There are muted people wandering around the art and echoes and the window nearby reveals the shadowed high rises; among them I look at the painting, which is somehow both full-bodied and disembodying—the body overtaken by feeling, the body feeling. “The effect of Martin’s art is not an exercise in overarching style,” Peter Schjeldahl writes in The New Yorker, “but a mode of moment-to-moment being.” I can see my face reflected in the gold surface—the vague shadowed shape of it.
I am trying to excavate a certain elegance in that which I fear may actually be just vanity. Trying to expose the intelligence beneath this insecurity, disguising a self-indulgent obsession as compelling formal inquiry. Trying to make this not sound so stupid.
“The conditions under which we loathe ourselves are socially constructed, but in practical terms, they’re very real,” writes Amanda Mull in a 2018 Vox article.
“Having certain types of bodies makes you more likely to die an early and unnecessarily painful death that will be blamed on you before your body is even cold, so I’m not sure why it’s so mystifying and dismaying to the world at large that people in those bodies might not think much of themselves.”
Andrea Long Chu echoes Mull’s skepticism of the body positivity movement in an interview in The Point, expressing her disdain for this particular brand of faux women’s liberation: “It is just anathema to me.” Body positivity, she explains, suggests to the individual that the reason for their self-loathing derives from “a lack of having had [their] consciousness raised,” an idea Chu rejects. “No, my self-loathing is precious to me, and it is a form of knowledge about myself, and it’s also by its own very structure fundamentally incapable of being fixed through consciousness-raising because self-loathing is a form of consciousness.”
To think through my self-loathing until it becomes newly shaped, or newly meaningful. To construct my own consciousness, my own image of myself—a fiction, but one in which I become livable. Still, the various reflections I come across in mirrors, in lingering glances, and the body’s ongoing fluctuations. To marry the two, to be continuous is I suppose the point of the narrative—that the stories we tell ourselves align with reality—but does the point matter? Is the marriage possible? Moments of it, I suppose, for a moment.
Now: November. Leaves loose on all the trees, oranges, the blue blue sky. The clarity of fall, these certain colors. I meet Halle in the city where we drink coffee and split a fancy toast for $16. This pattern in our friendship, the two of us following each other across the country and back—her in the city and I on the outskirts, crossing a body of water to gossip, to try to fully articulate ourselves.
She walks through Midtown with me toward the museum. I’m writing about the Agnes Martin piece and want to stand near it, step into it, and record what it’s like. I feel stupid paying $25 to look at a painting and take notes, but I want to be the kind of person who looks at a painting and takes notes, who can afford a museum fee on a random Thursday. Halle and I shout over traffic, construction, the weaving, ducking people. We hug outside the museum and she turns back toward the Village. In my Danskos I’m almost taller than her. Inside, I swipe my card at the ticket counter and climb the stairs.
I always feel like crying in museums. Hallways, lighting, the muffled sounds of everyone among the art feeling something profound, or trying to. I am hungry and tired, my feet hurt and I still have to work later.
“Friendship” is situated as I remember it—warm gold against white walls, hardwood. Tension in my neck and shoulders, I stand before it with my legs crossed awkwardly. I write my notes: canvas under gold—gold looks torn; scratches, smudges; my body a shadow moving across the shine.
There are no benches nearby, and I want to be home now. Maybe I am not so enraptured, so affected. Looking through the long thin window to the right of the painting, my reflection appears more clearly than it had on the gold surface of Martin’s canvas. There I am among the buildings, sky. Summer those months ago, all height and thinness in the bathroom mirror downstairs, the strip of skin between my shirt hem and shorts, dark tan. Beautiful in memory and now—ponytail slipping to the side, mask, bulky shoes. My skin transparent and leaking headlights of cars four stories below.
The body is not overtly apparent in Martin’s precise grids, curveless colors, and yet I find it there anyway. In an essay, Martin writes that all art is self-expression. “We must not think of self-expression as something we may do or something we may not do. Self-expression is inevitable.” Similarly, the body suggests its presence whether we invoke it or not—it is, for each of us, a singular site of feeling, both physical and emotional, internal and external; it is where we live.
Martin’s paintings seem to me to capture the body in the throes of experience—the body looking outward, beyond itself from within itself. A freedom from the narcissistic duality of seer and seen, a freedom of quiet, encompassing peace. Within, through, from the body. “There are moments for all of us in which the anchor is weighed. Moments in which we learn what it feels like to move freely not held back by pride and fear.”
I was trying to experience the art as a feeling, rather than to think it through as a critic, which should have been easy, as I am not a critic, is what I wrote sloppily in my notebook, standing up in those wide open rooms. I am purposeless and vague, I’m making all this up.
I turn away from myself and make my way back to the stairwell, walking conspicuously fast among the lingering, measured revelers. Toward the exit, toward the Subway, toward home. So I spent $25 to watch my reflection in a painting, then a window.
I leave MoMA this November afternoon and walk the wrong way to the train; I turn around, past the security guards again. All day I’ve been trying to be a certain person, a person who walks among great art on a Wednesday morning—to be a writer, to be seen and seeing as a writer, notebook in hand, intelligent and irresistible in an orange coat.
Maybe this is all writing—a kind of posturing, a particularly told story. The narcissism of writing, of making anything, how desperate this desire to be seen, bare, but in a certain light. That essential awareness of the reader becomes, or inherently is, self-conscious response to an external gaze. The desire to be looked at—to be specific, intelligent, beautiful.
“Life is shapeless,” the novelist Stanley Elkin said in an interview in The Paris Review, “but art, as everybody knows, is shaped.”
The expansive sloppiness of bodies stumbling and shifting and skipping through a life, which is plotless and impermanent. Martin’s quiet, searing attempts at precision which impart a particular stillness in the fumbling fluctuating panic of life. The shapelessness of being just a body, impossible to measure or capture or see, with limbs and long hair and eyes that gaze out at things. To gaze out at things.
So I am finding my way home through all the bodies of the city, my own clumsy, lost, visible. Trying to find a sign for the 3 train, looking one way, then looking the other.
Emily Alexander is from Idaho. Her poetry has been published in journals such as Narrative Magazine, Penn Review, and Conduit, and she has written for The Inlander and LitHub. She works in restaurants and lives in Brooklyn.
Image: Timon Studler/Unsplash