By Tiffany Klinger
Past the Pollock’s and Kandinsky’s, swirls and smears, and strokes of color like all the people passing by me, lies a girl in a field. She could be any girl. She is grasping for something beyond her and in front of her, but yet, always beyond her – just like any girl.
But Christina is real, individualized, singled out. Her struggles are all on display in front of us. I’ve seen her before, in reproductions and art textbooks highlighting Andrew Wyeth for his 20th century realist art. People pass Christina by, lingering for a few minutes, but most find her boring compared to the easy thrills of Picasso. “Ah, here’s the Picasso;” they gather and grab their iPhones. Alone, in her corner of the MoMa across from the elevators, in a spot you would miss if you didn’t need to ride up or down, she lies.
The grass grows up around Christina like untouched territory, like she is somewhere beyond the material world. Somehow this strikes me more than any of the other out-of-body, abstract exhibitions. The sky is strangely dim. It’s funny how a light color like beige can look transcendent in a Monet, but here it looks dark like Goya.
It feels surreal, this realist painting, yet I can find no surreal elements. Wherever she is—Kansas, Idaho, purgatory—the sun doesn’t shine. I bet the bleak monotony of purgatory would look just like this. I search for signs of life, but find none. I search for signs of death, but find none. Perhaps purgatory is not the lack of life, but rather, the lack of death—sterile. Ah, there it is: sterile. And that word brings up all kinds of images of Huxleyan descriptions, terrifying science fiction, and chemicals and heat. But here we are, in Christina’s World, and sterile is evoked. Perhaps little voices and running feet are missing from Christina’s world. Perhaps water and flowers—signifiers of life—are missing from Christina’s world. Because wherever she is—Kansas, Idaho, purgatory—she is alone. And whatever Christina’s struggle is, I image it to be painful.
“Pretty,” I hear people say, “She’s so pretty.” Her tied back hair, her lean and delicate arm, the trim tightness of her waist and backside. She is wearing pink – the color for little girls, a color for babies and new life. Though she hides her face, I can imagine it’s pretty. The backdrop is like paper doll scenery, with a distant house and barn right out of Little House on the Prairie. The painting seems dusty, as if it was stored too long in some boxes in the attic; someone found it and forgot to dust it off, yet thought how pretty it was, and put it in a wooden frame.
Why does Wyeth choose Christina? Maybe Wyeth found her and was struck like me. I feel he didn’t create Christina, only immortalized her in 1948. Did she seem so compelling and relatable to him as she does to me? Christina never even sees me, her eyes don’t follow me, but I want to come along with her. I want to be the best friend lamenting with whatever it is that ails Christina. Perhaps I’d bring her to NYC and save her from her destiny of suffocation under a children’s book sky and a paint-by-number house. I’d teach her all about how liberating it is in the 21st century. Am I even seeing Christina’s world or simply seeing my own?
But what of Christina? Beyond the walls of the MoMa, I find the information I crave. If I had known she was suffering from polio, if I had known her grasping was real and physical, if I had known Christina Olson wasn’t in Kansas, Idaho, or purgatory, but Maine, maybe I could have seen Christina instead of myself. The image of her struggle to crawl across a field resonates with people all over the world; I wonder if it would have made Christina’s days in the fields of Maine more bearable if she had known. I wonder if Christina would be surprised how popular Wyeth had made her, at the price she would be bought and sold. Would Christina have permitted us to say we feel her pain—we all at some point are grasping for something in front of us, yet beyond us? We all feel it: the realization that the longing has brought us no closer to the intended object. We can crawl, but where will it take us? The Upper East Side? Park Avenue? Heaven? Maybe someday, we’ll all get out of purgatory and we’ll stop having to grasp. Maybe someday, the pain will cease.