Some time ago, back in 2019, I found my way into the National Gallery of Art in search of a painting whose title I did not recall by an artist whose name I did not know. I had started hearing music in my head again after years and years of silence and with the return of music came a renewed, sensible pulse. More than just a thumpety-thump, the pulse drew melodic arches, resounded with deliciously complex harmonies and adorned itself with unlooked-for, yet somehow inevitable tremolos…
With the return of the music came memories of a painting that made me relive the atomized mist of water falling over cliffs into wooded glens. But with neither the title of the painting nor the name of the artist to go by, I could only hope that the painting still hung on the same wall where I had first seen it and marveled.
I tried not to seem too breathless or impatient as I made my way through the East Building of the National Gallery of Art where they keep modern works. I tried to enjoy wandering amongst the Calders and Lichtensteins and Pollocks while I sought my waterfall. Anselm Keifer’s confounding “Angel of History” was still on the main floor. It had maybe moved a few inches from where it was when I last saw it a decade ago… but then again, it did pack two tons on it’s five-meter length. I wandered past the reaching wings weighed down by the leaden tomes of humanity’s psychic baggage, past some paint-by-numbers soup can pictures (no disrespect, Warhol) and color-block swatches (no disrespect, Rothko), past bronze tauruses and striding giacomettis (respect!), hoping against hope that the waterfall would be waiting just around the corner where I had last seen it.
The silence of the years since I had last seen the chalky waterfall had also quieted the memory of its place in that symphonic world. I sought the painting not as one seeks an object, but as memories chase the flight of wind.
I wanted to feel the atomized mist evoked by that black canvas splashed with chalk. I wanted to experience the psychosomatic rush of wind and water dashing against imagined rocks, and meld the living vision of my mind’s eye to the music tumbling about in my mind’s ear…
But the painting I sought was not on the wall where I thought to find it. The wall was gone. The room was different. The entire gallery was different. And somehow the music in my head grew louder, reaching out to occupy the void left vacant by the absent painting. It took me but a moment to rejoice that the music had not grown silent. It took me a moment to realize that I had come to find that painting because it inhabited the moments of my life where music played unbidden. The silence of the years since I had last seen the chalky waterfall had also quieted the memory of its place in that symphonic world. I dared to imagine that I could tolerate the silence again, but I dread to think that I might have to if it ever returned. I sought the painting not as one seeks an object, but as memories chase the flight of wind.
The moment’s memory inspires in me more humility than I know how to put into words. Before the missing wall, the absent painting, I marveled at how autonomic Life confounds all our “creative” capacities, simply drawing us into the stream of its current unbidden; how we ride the current for as long as the vessels that hold our individuals selves can bear us; how ill the ways of man apprehend this wonder and instead meanly strive to control, contain and commodify it; how upon discovering himself powerless in the face of the current’s irrepressible power, he opts then to choke it, the rest of the world be damned.
The moment’s memory also casts into sharp relief the inexorability of the artistic impulse to make an echo of the way we experience this current. A black canvas splashed with chalk, I found, echoed to me all the breathtaking tenderness of all the thundering waterfalls I have ever known. When I could not go to the thunder, the canvas brought the thunder to me, out of me, through me…
The painting was no longer on view, I discovered. The docent who came upon me in that empty space wanting to know if she could help me with anything recognized my description of the painting; giant chalky waterfall on a jet black canvas. She wanted to know if there was any other color. I did not remember anything but the water against black. Pat Steir. Curtain Waterfall. It was in storage. She did not know when it would be on view again. She led me to the information desk and thumbed through a catalogue she pulled from below the counter.
Curtain Waterfall, 1991 (Pat Steir, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
The moment I saw it, those thousand words they say pictures are worth melded into a single stream of song and the autonomous persistence of Life trilled its mysterious music through my pulse. An electrocardiogram of my person would have punctuated that moment with the violence of my relief. A contrapuntal melody joined the song that was already playing in my mind’s ear and a gentle, atomized spray blew through the wind in my lungs. And I rejoiced.