December 17th, 2013
Jack, who has a museum membership, took me to see the Anders Zorn exhibition at the Legion of Honor today. If I wrote “marvelous” twelve times it would take a hundred and eight keystrikes. I don’t want to do that. But marvelous, marvelous, marvelous it was. I’d never heard of this Swedish painter of the turn of the 20th century until a few weeks ago. So Jack and I agreed it was a better idea than spending the whole afternoon at Peets, and off we went. It’s funny, I hadn’t been through the Sea Cliff neighborhood in a long time. A house on a curve in a neighborhood that had an unobstructed view of the sea caught my eye. I don’t know why. Pretty soon we were in the Legion parking lot and making our way up the long ramp to the entrance.
It had been a couple years since I’d been inside the Legion. I pretty quickly realized the marble-hard floors would be a challenge for my one foot to endure for a couple hours, but I made it. There were about eight rooms dedicated to the show. In the first were the early watercolors. Nice, but we moved on quickly. Pretty soon it was clear we were in the presence of a major artist, though, when we moved into the oils. Loose, brushy surfaces. His wife was among about six models he used over and over, but there was no sense of over and over. Everything had its own stamp. One of the oils stays with me. In the last room, on the central pillar, was a large self-portrait. Fascinating to see how quickly, from his slender early years, he fattened up to look like an executive of today. He held a cigarette like a cigar. I totted the years and figured he was 55 at the time of this painting — five years before his death. If it hadn’t been for the colors, I would have guessed it was President Taft. But god, the colors. Zorn stood in the foreground of a muted gray cottage room in a wide, wide suit with wider yet lapels. His suit was a rich, gorgeous orange. You have to see this to believe how orange can work on a conservative looking gentleman. But it does. I don’t know whether it took more balls to paint a suit like this or to wear one. In any case, it was — this word again — marvelous.
We spent two hours going from room to room, back and forth, just as you surely will, if you go to see the show. As we sat on a bench, just minutes before closing, we talked with an usher who knew more about art than do most ushers in my experience. The man looked young, but it turned out he’d been working at this job for more than eighteen years. I don’t know what it is about me — nosiness? — but I asked if he was getting minimum wage. Much to my pleasure I learned the city paid these guys pretty well — although he didn’t specify a figure. We laughed for a few minutes about my willingness to stick my nose in his business and then it was time to go.
On the way home, Jack and I went back through that same Sea Cliff neighborhood. We went by the house I mentioned in the first paragraph. “That’s where Robin Williams lived in the early eighties,” Jack told me. Oh my God. I looked at that house again and it hit me. I knew what was familiar. In 1982 I ran the San Francisco marathon. On one of my training runs — running the perimeter of the city from my home in North Beach, Sea Cliff was at about mile 17. Here among the beautiful homes, lush greenery, imaginative topiary, and freshly laundered hummingbirds was that house. On that training run I realized I had to poop. It was about three in the afternoon on a warm July day. I investigated the greenery in every yard (there were no empty lots). Finally, I entered Robin William’s yard, downsloping towards the sea. In the corner of the property was a pine forest of four or five trees. I had gone in, investigated the lines of sight, and although it was far from perfect protection, I could wait no longer. I did my business. How fascinating, I thought, remembering my little dungheap — San Francisco in the eighties, when Robin Williams did his best work. And I did mine.