What Stood Out
by Todd Walton, February 24, 2016
Max here, writing from snowy New Hampshire.
At 7:30 this morning I went out the door of #518 on my way to work. I usually come and go via the stairs, but today, my hands full, and thinking the wood I was carrying might prove awkward in the stairwells, I came down by elevator instead.
I went into the elevator and pressed 2, but the elevator slowed to a stop at 3. When the doors opened, I waited for a fellow passenger to appear, but all that came in was some pleasantly warm air and the scent of perfume. The doors stayed open. Nobody arrived. I wondered: Had a woman on the Third Floor pressed the button and then remembered something she’d meant to bring and walked back to her apartment to get it? Or, while waiting, had she grown impatient and decided to just run down the stairs?
In any case, I rode down to the Second Floor accompanied by her hallway’s warmth and her fading perfume. Then I got off with my wood and walked down the long hall to #202.
In other news, Kate and I went to see the Joseph Cornell show, and after the show, Kate asked what stood out most for me, and I immediately said, “The women waiting for the light to come on in the dark owl box.”
This was my second time seeing the Cornell show, and I especially wanted Kate to see one particular box, one with an owl in it. I loved the quality of darkness this box had, a certain mystery. It was just so black and quiet. I hadn’t understood that most of what made me love this box was that no light illuminated it, unlike the other boxes in the exhibition.
Three women stood a couple yards back from that dark box, gazing intently at the mysterious piece as if it was speaking to them. They stood there unmoving for many minutes. Kate read the printed explanation on the wall next to the box and learned that a light only came on in this box for one minute every half hour.
We moved on to the next display, leaving the women still standing there. Then we heard voices behind us and turned: the box was lit and we went back to look. The women had moved closer, their steadfastness rewarded. A small, candle-shaped bulb inside the box cast a wonderful glow behind the owl and revealed a pattern like raindrops on the box’s old glass.
I wondered why this box required special handling. Did the curators fear too much light would harm the piece? How did the owner of this box find out about this vulnerability? How did the museum decide on the safe amount of light? I thanked one of the women, explaining that only because of their attention had I known there was something else to see.
When I told Kate that the owl box was what stood out most for me about the show, she asked, “Do you picture the box lit?”
I said, “No, I think of it dark. I liked it better dark. And mostly what stays with me is the way those women were willing to wait and wait so patiently for that light to return.”
Your two stories reminded me of the day I went to the Whitney Museum in New York to see the Calder retrospective. My favorite piece in the show was an arrangement of seven orange bowls, two-inches-high and ranging in size from three inches in diameter to ten inches in diameter—the rims of the bowls curving inward slightly. The bowls were arrayed on the floor in a seemingly random way.
Suspended from the ceiling high above the bowls was a one-inch-diameter rod about four-feet long hanging parallel to the ground. Suspended from one end of the rod on a thin string was a round chunk of white clay about the size of a golf ball. This ball hung down to a foot or so above the bowls. Suspended from the other end of the rod and hanging down to about seven feet above the ground was a small leather sack filled with sand.
When a crowd of people had gathered around the bowls, a museum guard gave the leather sack a push, and the swinging of this sack caused the rod high above to both twist and seesaw up and down, which in turn caused the round chunk of clay to fly around above the bowls, rising and falling and occasionally tapping the floor and striking one or another of the bowls, each bowl sounding a different tone when struck.
Sometimes the ball of clay would come very close to striking a bowl but would miss. Sometimes the ball of clay would strike several bowls in succession. And best of all, sometimes the ball of clay would hop into a bowl and spin around for a moment before hopping out. A single push of the weighted sack kept the little ball dancing around the bowls for many minutes.
The emotions aroused in me by watching this ball strike, almost strike, get inside the bowls, and jump out of the bowls, were suspense, joy, disappointment, amazement, elation, admiration, hope, and satisfaction. At one point, the ball landed in the smallest bowl and whirred around for an instant before flying out. The crowd reacted to this fortuitous event with laughter and cheering. I watched the show for half-an-hour and was never bored.
When I emerged from the Whitney, I walked by a newsstand where the headline on the front page of the New York Times announced that Calder had just died.
What stood out for me most about Calder’s bowls and dancing ball of clay were the people watching so intently as the little ball interacted with those bowls—the cries of delight when the ball went into a bowl, the groans of disappointment when the ball would almost but not quite land in a bowl.
(Todd's web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)