I had been teaching all day and was in no mood for chitchat. As I drove toward the gallery near Venice Beach, a selfish fantasy filled my head: I was alone in a brightly lighted room filled with new paintings.
My fantasy shattered as I turned a corner and pulled into a line of cars waiting for valet parking. The opening-night crowd spilled out of the gallery's entrance, filled its courtyard and spread across the sidewalk.
More visitors were visible through a big window on the stairway to the second floor, gripping their plastic-cup cocktails like NFL running backs determined not to fumble.
I felt like punting, but I set my jaw and carried on.
You might wonder why I even tried. Art openings aren't about the art. In the popular imagination, they are glamorous affairs, exclusive soirees where stylish sophisticates rub shoulders with artists from the fringe.
In truth, they're mundane occasions. Imagine a year-end office party held every month and you'll get the idea. Anyone can go; just read the newspaper listings or pick up an announcement at a gallery's front desk.
Trying to look at art during an opening is a lot like watching a movie with a theater full of people who have no qualms about nudging your shoulder and pushing a bag of popcorn in your face.
For art critics like me, openings are occupational hazards. Sometimes a deadline or a social reason or shameless curiosity draws me in. Or maybe I'm so eager to see a new body of work that putting up with the crowd is a small price to pay.
But you have to be in the right mood.
Tonight, all the conditions applied except the last one. I decided I'd take a peek at each painting, say some hellos and come back in a few days for a longer look.
At every turn, I was reminded why not to go to an opening.
As I entered the courtyard, I heard my name. I didn't waver. I figured that the noisy party would let me pretend I hadn't heard anything.
But a hand touched my elbow. It was the artist's mother, a gracious woman whose homemade treats I often ate at her son's studio. We exchanged friendly greetings. When we parted, I felt creepy for having tried to avoid her -- like a Hollywood wannabe whose eyes never stop scanning the room for someone more powerful to talk to.
Two steps inside the front door and my guilt diminished. Ambushed again, this time by an overeager inquisitor whose well-practiced air-kisses didn't prevent her from getting right to the point. "Isn't this amazing?" she exclaimed in a way that turned the question into an assertion that wasn't worth arguing over.
I wanted to say, "I have no idea. I can't see a wall, much less a painting hanging on it. And you should know that, since you're blocking my path like a security guard bucking for promotion."
But I erred on the side of politeness. I said I'd be right back after taking a look for myself. We both knew I was lying.
I managed to get a glimpse of each painting. But I spent more time looking at the backs of heads and shoulders. It's hard to focus on art when people are stepping on your toes.
I didn't have a calm moment until I was at the curb, waiting for my car.
A few days later I was back, and my fantasy was much closer to coming true. I stood and scanned the installation; swooped in for close-ups; and, walking back and forth between works, compared and contrasted. Listening to the pictures converse with themselves, I heard the rhythms of their shouts, whispers and silences.
When looking at art, solitude isn't absolutely necessary, but it sure sweetens the experience.
David Pagel, who reviews art for The Times, is a mentor at Santa Monica College, and a visiting scholar at Claremont Graduate University.