The other morning, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vincent van Gogh and I had a chat. I asked him about the straw hat and blue cravat he had on: Was he going for an urban bohemian look, or was it all about coming off as an outsider? We had a frank exchange about his mental state. He was looking a bit wound-up — I’d heard rumors about some strange behavior — but his eyes seemed bright and untroubled. Of course we mostly went on about his art. Where did his work fit into his era’s modern painting? Was a next step toward abstraction in the back of his mind?
I admit that it had been a long time since I’d tried to commune this deeply with van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat,” from 1887, one of the Met’s treasures. For years, every time I’d gone to pay it — him — my respects, the crowd of admirers made it impossible to get near enough, for long enough, for us to achieve any real understanding. But over the last few months, with Covid restrictions severely limiting attendance, the world’s most famous museums have given their art a new opportunity to speak to us.
This is the moment to revisit the holdings of our great art museums: Even if their special exhibitions start to fill up again, it will be a while before crowds come to their permanent collections. As museums everywhere contemplate their post-Covid future, their Covid-troubled present carries us back to a glorious, more art-friendly past.
On my very first visit to New York’s great museums, almost four decades ago, you could look at just about any work without much in the way of distraction or obstruction. My parents, the most die-hard of modernists, had raised their kids on abstraction alone, so I needed all the calm I could get to come to grips with how people-pictures like van Gogh’s self-portrait, or the celebrated Rembrandts down the hall, could even count as https://www.nytimes.com/