Dangerous When Wet

Aside from my cat—and I would rather have him than all the Barnes Foundation’s 59 Matisse masterpieces, I value my art works above everything else in my possession. Each artwork hanging provides me with keen self-awareness and evocative memories as well as aesthetic pleasure.

Less frequently hanging new pieces in recent years, I took a favorite poster to be framed just last month. The poster is from a reception and book signing for a biography of Philadelphia artist Emlen Etting. It had hung unframed in my campus office for many years. I was always afraid that framing the poster, like eating lunch at my office desk, would mean I was actually employed there.

When I arrived to pick up the finished frame, I could already see it from the car through the frame shop window, looming in the back of the shop, just waiting for me—like Audrey II in Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors. I’d wager that like the Great Wall of China, you might be able to see this frame from space.

Double matting defines the look but is unable to contain the poster because the outer mat is the identical boldest blue of the poster—blue floods the framed rectangles like those gargantuan pools in all the Esther Williams movies. Moreover, because the blue mat board didn’t come oversized enough, and this poster is gigantic, gold square mat board is constructed into the blue outer mat at every corner of the frame and anchors the frame with bold metallic stakes like monumental golden beacons.

The poster depicts the cover of the book with the artist pictured in a black-and-white photo under the title in white letters. Above his image “Book Signing and Reception” has been added in white poster lettering. The artist figure gleams like the deepest dark blue recesses of the pool while the white lettering floats, flickering like lingering smoke or faraway lights. And looking into the glass—aerial shots of the blue water below from a pool springboard…from an Olympic platform—and ultimately wide angle from the Hollywood stratosphere of Esther Williams’ movie spectacles morph as in a production number from the Million Dollar Mermaid. Metallic gold shimmers between blue poster and blue mat. And guided home to Atlantis by the golden torch of Neptune’s Daughter’s father emerging resplendent from beneath the sea of his bluest blue domain, I can dive into all that blue. I can dive like Esther Williams through golden wires now sensationally set afire—flames dancing and gleaming around me, smoldering watchtowers, and flares of burnished gold, to risk self-immolation just for the spectacle. And I did. I do.

Does the poster remind me of the book signing and of all those years in my office? Yes—but the framed poster submerges those decades and catapults me back to my childhood. It compels me to dive once more into the turquoise blue and gold of the lounge aboard Eastern Airlines’ Golden Falcon, the plane of the future, soaring from bleak Chicago winters into the flamboyant Florida golden sun. All this explosive Morris Lapidus’ “too much can never be too much” blue-on-gold-on-blue throbs under the glass and lights up my bedroom like the morning sun illuminated the French provincial mirrors in an ocean-view room of Miami Beach’s Eden Roc Hotel.

That was indeed one “lovely light.”

I am more than old enough to realize that the lovely light never lasts the night. I understand that, in fact, I had to vacate my campus office and forfeit a wall of more discreetly framed pieces just to make space for this bombastic frame in my center city apartment. Obvious care was taken with every detail to create the poster. Framing this treasured piece proved another careful and expensive task. Yet it is a small price because here it now hangs—blue spontaneous combustion.