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Letter of Recommendation: Send me SFMOMA

I’m 33 today. In honor of my birthday, and all of the lousy first drafts hanging out on my computer’s hard drive, I’m sharing today a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.

For the past 18 months, I’ve lived in a mid-sized, pleasant Midwestern city. It has a robust art scene and gorgeous, maze-like art museums that are, shockingly, free. I’ve spent many solo afternoons wandering through rooms drenched red or blue or cream, gazing upon canvases and feeling pleasure and discomfort and wonder.

Visual art has never been something vital in my life; it’s more like a language that I studied half-heartedly in high school but pretend to maintain so I can get through a conversation. It’s rare that I feel justified in understanding what the artist is trying to say, what I ought to be thinking and seeing as I look at the layers of paint or graphite. But an art gallery is a place where I can feel less alone in a new city, or at least more at home in my solitude. No one in a museum is expecting anything of me. I can simply stand and look at something that reflects my mood or broadens my mind with decades or centuries of perspective.

Lately, I’m not even leaving my apartment to find some beauty in the world. The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco recently launched Send Me SFMOMA, a texting service that allows it to share its thousands of archived pieces with the smartphones of the world.

I text a message to 572-51 and it responds within seconds with a photo of original artwork and a caption with the title, artist, and year it was created. I type “Send me quiet” and receive Clarence H. White’s “Evening Interior,” ca. 1899. In the sepia photograph, a woman sits on a chair, facing toward the windows and away from the camera. Spindly plants line the windowsill. The windows are draped in filmy curtains. The woman’s hair is pulled up and she wears a long dress, creating a sweeping, graceful curve from her left shoulder to the end of the dress’s train bunched on the right-hand side of the chair.

I save the photo as my phone’s wallpaper and open my messaging app again. “Send me calm.” Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Ocean)’, 1977. Choppy small waves stretch out across the entire grayscale photograph. I exhale. I save the image to my photo library.

At time when I feel burdened or caught up in my emotions, I find myself texting SFMOMA, a friend who gives and gives and who is always ready to help to soothe my fears. If I request something that the service can’t find, I receive a friendly response: “We could not find any matches. Maybe try ‘Send me San Francisco’ or ‘Send me [wave emoji]’ or ‘Send me something purple’.”

A quick review of my texts to SFMOMA could tell anyone what I’ve been seeing and feeling in the past several months. On a trip home to visit my parents on their farm in western Oregon, I wanted the message stream to reflect the lushness around me: “Send me sky. Send me flowers. Send me [fire emoji]. Send me landscape.” 

Coming home from a late weeknight date: “Send me romance. Send me excitement. Send me red.” The images come flooding in, sometimes awakening me to the singularity of my thoughts. “Send me desire,” I type, thinking of a man’s jawline, the musk of his neck, and SFMOMA responds with Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Display Cakes’, 1963. The clean painting features three round, perfect cakes on tall cake stands, throwing shadows onto the muted white background. Now I want dessert, too.

This service doesn’t cost me anything, except time, and yet it feels like a higher-minded pursuit than scrolling through over-filtered landscape photos on Instagram. This is art that has been forged in a fire of time and public opinion and market preference, art that has endured, art that now drops into my hand at my bidding and feels approachable. It speaks to me.

I wake up on a Sunday morning from a bad dream. In the dream, I was having an episode of dissociation, bringing back a flood of emotions that I’ve had put to bed by day for some time now. My dream world was dark and narrow and in it, I was panicking and unable to soothe myself. Getting out of bed, I feel a heaviness in my chest. I struggle to shake off the fear that the anxiety I felt in my dream is coming for me again in my waking hours. I reach for my phone. “Send me comfort.” In comes an untitled piece by Martin Kippenberger, 1990. It’s a simple line drawing, done on a sheet of paper from a hotel notepad. The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Frank Lloyd Wright, I think, right? Wright wanted to bring the outside in with his architecture. I urge myself to think about the earth, trees and plants, the ground beneath my feet. I look back at the image on my phone. I’ve visited Tokyo with my sister and I felt at ease and alive there. I link these small comforts, putting some distance between myself and my feelings. It’s OK. I’m not alone, I think, looking at the drawing of a woman holding a distressed man on a couch.

I type again. “Send me grounding.” SFMOMA can’t find a match. “Send me reassurance.” Nothing there, either.

“Send me ease.” I’m looking at Sid Grossman’s ‘Untitled [Portrait of painter]’, 1940s. In the photograph, a painter sits on a stool, holding a paintbrush to a canvas. His profile is thrown into silhouette by the window he sits next to, sunlight flooding into the room. I feel the corners of my mouth lift, almost imperceptibly. My jaw relaxes. The subject of the photo is a little blurry, but the lines are clear. His head and his painting hand are tilted toward the canvas with focus and intent. Like this artist, when I sit down to my canvas, the cursor blinking on a blank page, I know I am where I am supposed to be.

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