January Days South in California
©Charles Shere 2001
for Richard and Marta

homepage   other travel
    1: The Road to  Ojai 4: Pasadena
    2: Bombay to Brentwood 5: Barstow to Death Valley
    3: Downtown Los Angeles 6: Bishop, Mono Lake and Tahoe


4: Pasadena

Where it was waiting for us was at the Norton Simon Museum, but I insisted on going first to the Huntington -- not for its paintings but for its magnificent cactus garden.

The problem with Pasadena was that neither the Huntington nor the Simon Norton, as our Italian persisted in calling it, would open its doors until noon. The height of gentility. And at 11:30 the guard even turned us away from the parking lot because we were still too early, so we drove around Pasadena's older, closer-in residential community a bit until Marta was convinced they should settle there, and then back once more to nearby San Marino and -- finally -- the Huntington Garden.

The weather was still cool and clear and crisp, and the garden was lush. It is difficult to describe the effect of this fabulous place. Cactuses are among the most eccentric, cleverly engineered, outlandish-looking organisms on earth, I think; and they flourish here as nowhere in untended Nature. They are watered, of course, though carefully; and densely planted; and pampered, perhaps even fed. There are even discreet propane-burning mushroom-type heaters scattered among the more tender ones in sections the gardeners have found, over the years, to be particularly prone to chill.

Richard, who loves music, and particularly the Viennese masters, is fond of quoting Haydn as saying "When I think of God, I laugh [with joy, of course, not derision]": looking at these riotous yet somehow dignified plants one felt much the same urge. There's something endlessly cheerful about this garden: even the more surreal cactuses never quite manage to be threatening or sinister or gloomy, however guarded and well armed they might be.

There were the mammaleriae we'd seen at the Getty, only these were in bloom. There were whole small armies of them, reminding me of the men who popped up where the dragon's teeth had been sown. There were old-man cactuses, and tall skinny ones climbing their spiral twisting way thirty feet into the air, and tiny tiny ones hiding among the pebbles. And there were curious dry trees whose bark was stuck about with small triangular thorns, like tiny stegosaur scales, but these trees shed some kind of flossy silk, and parrakeets flew among their branches.

There were cactuses with holes in them, offering nesting places for songbirds. There were barrel cactuses, and cactuses disguised as rocks, and really weird cactuses that every now and then decided to grow arms or legs with a completely different character, as if they had elephantiasis or goiter, except that they did not look diseased, merely irresolute.

Well: you could spend all day in this garden, and one day we will. But Norton Simon beckoned, so we took a quick tour through the library display -- an exhibition manuscript and early printed editions of Chaucer -- and trotted through the main museum to see the Blue Boy and Pinkie, English art of that period does not do it for me; and the ancillary galleries to look at a scattering of 20th century American art, and then, without a glance at the Zen garden or the herb garden, to my intense regret, we were off to Norton S.

You have probably seen the disgruntled ex-critic coming. The N. Simon is not my favorite place. I can't help thinking of this marvelous twin-galleried building, bifurcated by its pool-dominated sculpture garden, as the Pasadena Art Museum it started out to be -- run back in the Sixties by Walter Hopps, and dedicated to the New, American, and Enigmatic. I recall the Duchamp retrospective -- his first! -- in the downtown Pasadena predecessor; and the competition for this new building (Claes Oldenburg submitted a wonderful design, an enormous prone package of cigarettes, two of them emerging from the wrapper to form the entry hall); and the promise that staid genteel Pasadena would showcase the most exciting contemporary museum in the country.

Well it went belly up, of course; and Mr. Simon, rich as Croesus and proclaiming his position by assembling, just in time, as wide-ranging a collection as money could then buy, heavy on postimpressionists, but with two or three each by as many of the other big names as he could get. At about the time that he bailed out the museum he traveled to San Francisco, I think in connection with a show of his collection at the De Young Museum (which was probably lusting after an extensive loan), and I remember interviewing him, and finding him one of the surprisingly few unpleasing interviewees I'd met: small, sharp-featured, distant, reserved, a rich and powerful man having to discuss himself for the benefit of a young, long-haired, inexperienced, rather ignorant boy.

(This was probably at the television station, KQED, where my well-disguised promise was seen by the discriminating administration, who were however powerless to persuade me of it, and had to watch me conceal it further beneath pose, prose, and studied ineptness.)

So we parked in the museum parking lot, we and the Veronese, and ambled past the Rodins, their patinas suspiciously glossy and uniform, as if they had been plasticized against pollution from the nearby freeway, and paid our money, and were pleased to discover that the museum would be open a little later than usual.

We headed for the moderns, which in this museum means the postimpressionists, and went to work. My museum gait is not that of our Italians. I walk fairly briskly through a museum, then go back to the pieces that attracted or puzzled me the most for further inspection. I don't pretend to have a good memory. I am not like the composer Lou Harrison, who I've seen walk through a museum, poring over each item for about twelve seconds, and then discuss the work in detail, lingering over what is clearly a fully revisited visual impression, in the comfort of his own home, hours later.

No: I simply walk through and get impressions -- by which I mean: lose myself as much as possible, and my preconceptions (many more than my share, you've noticed), and try to dissolve in the ambiance of the work, the continuing conversation that develops among the paintings and sculptures whose knowledge and even awareness is so much fuller and deeper and richer than my own; and try to better myself (no great feat, you'll agree) by eavesdropping among them, without getting hung up on details or passages or themes or developments.

Ezra Pound came up with a marvelous title: Pavanes and Divagations; and this is what I aim for in my stately rush through the galleries. And then so much of the work is familiar. The Degas sculpture, the best I think since Michelangelo, the little fourteen-year-old dancer, the bathers, the race horses -- these are old friends; one nods at them, takes note of their own private colloquy, and goes on to the next gallery, unwilling to intrude further.

Lindsey, though, is a little slower; and the Italians are impossible. I've seen a quarter of the museum, and go outside for some air, and find the late afternoon is already at hand, and the light is magnificent on another old friend, Maillol's "Air," a gigantic female nude gracefully poised on one hip, arm and fingers extended. I go back in to find my sculptor friend still transfixed in the second or third gallery, and take him by the elbow and march him outside, knowing the sculpture garden will be a special treat.

He is overwhelmed with the museum, but still in the early rooms, inspecting a Picasso closely. I have by now been through the entire museum in my superficial way, thrilled to the Cranach Adam and Eve, marvelled at the Memling and Bellini portraits, disapproved the stagey Rembrandts, enjoyed the odd perspective of the big Canaletto.

I've listened to a school orchestra fight its way through something, I don't recall what, in a rehearsal for the evening event that's keeping the museum open late. And I've been to the bookstore on the continuing search for a good reproduction of that fourteen-year-old dancer, and been rewarded with yet another offering of dull, small, out-of-focus replicas in cast material that can't reproduce Degas's curious combination -- or, better, mediation -- of incisive detail,  fluid gesture, and uncannily reflective surface.

I've even gone downstairs and walked through the exotic stuff, the Indian sculpture. Lindsey by now has worked her way through most of the museum, too. But our guests have yet to leave the modern half of the galleries, and by now are worn out, and determined to return in a day or so. And by now the mayor is about to appear to give his annual State of the City address, that's why the school musicians are here, that's why these tables of dubious finger-food are appearing in the lobby, and we walk out into the evening and drive a few blocks to meet friends at a fine Thai restaurant, Salabang, where the intensely fragrant green curry infused with lime peels pushes Mr. Simon's collection out of my working mind.

Two days later we did return, of course, and we all worked our way through the old-master wing, freed now of student musicians. But by now I was tired of Art, of all these rectangles hanging on the wall, bought from a Europe hard-pressed for cash in the hard days after the War, hung about like trophies for a fortunate admiring audience to marvel at. It's a bad frame of mind to get into. It happens in the Uffizi, in the Accademia, in the Rijksmuseum, in the Louvre.

(It's interesting, in fact, to think about where it does not happen. It does not happen in absolutely first-rate collections, like the de Menil in Houston, or the Mauritshuis in The Hague, or for that matter the Anderson Collection we'd seen a few days earlier in San Francisco. And it does not happen in small regional galleries like the enchanting gallery in Skagen, at the tip of Danish Jutland, where the collection records a special moment at the turn of the last century when Impressionism finally arrived at that quietly luminous seashore.)

I was even tired of hearing about art, and certainly resistant to talking about it. After years of writing about it I've decided you simply can't, really; talking about it misses the point. I mean it may make sense to talk or write about it in its absence, to recall or elicit its effect, to inquire as to its meaning, to consider its force: but when it's right there in front of you it seems absurd to deal with it in verbal terms, to reduce and restrict its endless intelligence to whatever vocabulary you can summon forth -- most of it probably borrowed from catalog essays or journalistic criticism, the very stuff I've too often contributed.

And I was restless. We were driving on to Barstow tonight; we had a motel reservation there. Lindsey wanted to show our friends the Greene & Greene houses near the museum first, and we did drive by and wonder at them; and I wanted to show our Italians the marvelous Civic Center, vaguely recalling some splendid architecture-as-town-center from a previous trip. But I was conflating the memory of the old Hotel Green with a deceptive sketch of the new Plaza Las Fuentes, and when we strolled the latter -- for I'd forgotten the former entirely -- we found it drab, desolate, and depressing. In city after city you find this mindless exercise in good intention; I found it again today (March 19, 2001) in Healdsburg: big stucco buildings looking down onto enclosed "courtyards" devoid of people, bars, cafés, dogs, bicycles -- anything that might whisper Urban Life, or Fun, or Leisure, or Conversation.

It's true the day was cold and windy, and it was by then late in the afternoon. But there was nothing to hold people here. It was the kind of "plaza" -- actually more a long narrow mall -- that would do for officeworkers seeking a bit of sun after lunch. There were places to sit, and a linear kind of stroll. But there were no newstands or coffeeshops, no inviting corners or retreats.

So we hit the road. We'd already eaten in Pasadena, two days earlier, after our first visit to the Sorton Nimon, when our friends Todd and Sarah introduced us to Saladang, big and justly popular, Thai food with style and surprise. The green curry, flavored with lime leaves, is memorable. So we didn't have to linger in Pasadena for another dinner: we hit the freeway, dodging a gruesome pileup on a strategic interchange, and got to Barstow in time for dinner at the only place we've ever eaten there, the Idle Spur Steak House, where the Martini came in a curious Mason jar-like glass, and the steak was hearty, dubious, and far too big.

 on to 5: Death Valley          top of page  homepage     other travel