Every few minutes, my father pushes out of his armchair to take a tour of his house. He stops at the desk I’ve made of the table off the kitchen and flips through my books. He asks me again what I’m working on, what sort of job I have these days. His curiosity is genuine; there’s a lilt to his voice and light in his eyes. But the cumulative effect is such that it begins to feel like an interrogation. As if none of my answers pleases him. Eventually, even my own ears aren’t satisfied.
And yet I appreciate my father’s inquiries, because while I was growing up his career—which took him around the world—came first. The interest he’s showing me now feels like a novelty. It’s utterly free of preoccupation. The thought crosses my mind that maybe this is how I’ll remember him: a single weekend will erase years of inattention. In any event, work is not what I’m doing. I’ve given up on trying to write in my father’s home, which is just outside of Washington, DC, where I live, and am tackling my e-mail instead. Among the recent acquisitions at the National Gallery of Art, I learn from the museum’s newsletter, is a 1967 piece titled Black Plank by John McCracken, a Minimalist artist with whom I’m only vaguely familiar. I mumble something to my father and he shuffles back to his cluttered study.
Black Plank. I come to a halt at these words as if I’ve been driving, not scrolling, and they are an obstacle in the road. Together they are inelegant, “unworkable in the literature of wonder or beauty,” in G. K. Chesterton’s formulation. They sound like the name of a disease—a mold that attacks the trunks of trees. They also evoke a human affliction: mind matter that’s thick and dark, or—because the words are a bit of a tongue twister—blank.
The announcement includes no image, but one has already formed inside my head. A quick search confirms that the work is as I had guessed—as anyone might guess—a black plank. But not just any black plank. Made of plywood coated in fiberglass and polyester resin, it’s “a rare black early plank in pristine condition,” and one of the many planks that constitute the artist’s “signature achievement.”
McCracken, I learn, believes in UFOs and aliens. He feels that each of his planks “has its own personality, indeed its own being.” He also believes in time travel and hopes the planks will function as time machines. The planks are displayed leaning against a wall, thereby bridging sculpture (“identified with the floor”) and painting (“identified with the wall”). I’m weighing the profundity of this when my father comes to the table again to ask me what I’m working on. In this moment, whether the absurdities of the situation at hand have falsely implicated Black Plank, or the plank itself has contributed to the absurdities, the three of us become entwined.
A plank, if you visualize it upright, also has something of the signpost about it. It’s what you hope to come across if you’re lost in the woods. I set out to see Black Plank three days later, walking the twenty-five minutes from my home to the National Gallery. Washington was in the clutches of summer, with temperatures expected to approach ninety degrees, but the day was comfortable thanks to extensive cloud cover, which looked like unrolled batts of crimped wool.
Along the way I pondered the truism that “art is what you bring to it.” I subscribe to this but at the same time find it suspect: it says nothing about getting anything in return. What was I bringing to Black Plank? A lifelong love of art, for one thing. A certain ruthlessness, for another. For example, I used to feel compelled to read an “important” book all the way through regardless of whether it was holding my interest. No longer: time is what’s important. (How much of it would I spend on Black Plank?) There’s also the independence of thought that comes with age, and an I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude about how I’m perceived. Call me a sucker for loving Black Plank, or a philistine for hating it. I don’t care. What else was I bringing? A trouble or two that tries my patience for the trivial and the meaningless, which would seem to bode poorly for the plank. But I also have a sensibility that favors less-than-monumental subjects. I fondly recall a movie I saw years ago in which the only action was a fight over a bicycle. And I delight in a quote from Annie Dillard: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.”
Halfway to the museum, I turned north from Pennsylvania Avenue onto Second Street because I like to walk along the backs of the national landmarks, the tourists massed at their fronts and thus out of the way. Here it can be surprisingly quiet—deserted even—depending on the time of day. I passed behind the Library of Congress, its copper dome aged to green, the gilded Torch of Learning shining at its apex. To my right was the Folger Library, which has the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world. Crossing East Capitol Street, I had to my left a view of the Capitol a block away, its white dome topped by a classical female figure in flowing robes—the Statue of Freedom. She was facing me, for what we think of as the back of the Capitol was designed to be the front and is just as elaborate as the view from the Mall. I like this about the Capitol: say what you will about what goes on inside, the building itself shows no bad side. I passed behind the Supreme Court, the words justice the guardian of liberty inscribed on its pediment. I walked by elaborate friezes and chiseled laurel wreaths and gigantic urns and Corinthian columns and Ionic pilasters and chandeliers ablaze in high windows and stone faces staring straight ahead from above arched windows and lion heads spouting water into marble basins. All of which is to say that if my errand seemed small at the outset, it now felt infinitesimal.
At Constitution Avenue I turned left and passed the Senate office buildings and the United States Court House. Glumly I walked by the Department of Labor, wondering if, after years of freelancing, I could ever again get a real job. I made a left onto Fourth Street NW, ignoring the entrance to the National Gallery’s East Building, in which, somewhere, Black Plank leaned against a wall. I wanted to ascend the West Building’s grand staircase. I wanted to take the pink marble steps because I fear that, in the name of security, the grand approach is becoming a thing of the past in Washington. The most recent casualty was the front entrance to the Supreme Court: now everyone, lawyers and visitors alike, must use a plaza-level side entrance that takes them under the stairs—prompting Justice Stephen G. Breyer to issue an impassioned reminder that the stairs “are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself.” By climbing the West Building’s forty-one stairs and pushing through its massive doors, which are bound in leather and trimmed with brass nailheads in the manner of a club chair, I was showing respect for what was inside and elevating my spirits in the process.
One great thing about the National Gallery is that admission is free, so you don’t have to cram lots of artworks into one exhausting visit. If you’re in the vicinity—whether you live nearby or you’re on your lunch break or are making a day of it on the Mall—you can drop in with the sole purpose of seeing Black Plank without feeling you must also swing by the Vermeers, say, or the Leonardo. And you can pass through the Rotunda and make straight for the underground passage to the East Building, as I did, without so much as a glance at Mercury-the-messenger-god atop the fountain, pointing with his index finger to Mount Olympus. “Next time,” you tell yourself.
Hanging from a bookshelf in my father’s study is a whiteboard on which is written
Nancy here till Friday noon
To the immediate left of the board is my college photo, and although it’s possible I’ve been in that position for years, I suspect that my father’s wife, just before she left for Africa on business, moved it there to reinforce the connection between my name and my face. To the right of the board is a medium-size mirror. The third part of this book-blocking triptych, the mirror haunts me, though I can’t figure out why. Eventually I decide that its placement serves a purpose as well: to reacquaint the inner and the outer selves.
Getting to any of the books on the shelves is difficult. Pictures hang from every edge. Framed newspaper articles that feature my dad. Photographs of him shaking hands with well-known people. Diplomas and letters and certificates of appreciation. This display looks for all the world like that of a man with an enormous ego. But there is no ego. My father had always hung a few mementos in his study, but the extravagance now is so that he might be reminded of what he had made of himself.
In the East Building at last, I went to the information desk for directions to Black Plank. The volunteer, a woman in her seventies, didn’t know what it was so I described it: a black plank leaning against a wall. That didn’t ring a bell, so she picked up the phone and called someone who reported that I had to go back downstairs. I quickly scanned the underground galleries for the distinctive shape until finally I was standing in front of it. And as luck would have it I pretty much had the plank to myself.
Photographs, I had to admit, don’t do the piece justice: it’s quite imposing—perhaps eight feet tall. And even more polished than I’ d expected. It couldn’t possibly be mistaken for construction site debris or for just another piece of wood in the lumberyard. Nor would you think it a “found object,” elevated by virtue of being in a museum. You might not even guess it is made of wood, and certainly not of plywood. It looks pricey, slick. Even if you were invited to touch it, you’ d be afraid to; it’s so flawless you wouldn’t dream of leaving fingerprints.
I had thought its blackness would be that of a black hole, whose point of no return sucks in color and light never to be seen again. But the ceiling lights shone in it like an assembly of suns, and the reflected hues of a Frank Stella collage in the room behind me gave it a bit of cheer. I felt awkward standing directly in front of it, unable to look at Black Plank without seeming to look at myself. You actually look into it, not at it, and therefore into yourself. This illusion of depth reminded me of Thoreau’s lake-as-earth’s-eye, “looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” Maybe our mirrors should be like this, I thought—a vehicle for soul-searching, just dark enough to be useless for applying lipstick or plucking gray hairs. The plank cast long, overlapping shadows on the wall behind it, narrow at the top and wider at the bottom, like an inverted paper fan beginning to open.
The front door opens and shuts quietly; my father has gone out. I finish the paragraph I’m reading, turn my book face down in my lap. I don’t know what my father does when he’s outside. I haven’t wanted him to catch me spying from the window.
The house is suddenly quiet yet not silent. The clocks, the refrigerator, the air conditioning: they seal me off from the outside world, making me feel entombed. In my own home, I will suffer heat for an open window.
When my father returns after a few minutes, I flip my book right side up and call to him, “What’s going on out in the world?” The words surprise me as soon as they leave my mouth. I hear in them a long-ago echo: “And what news of the world do you bring me, my lass?” my father would ask if he should encounter me coming in from play.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “I didn’t look very far.”
At 10:30 he goes out again, though we had agreed at 9:00 to lock the door for the night. Again, I turn over my book. And again he returns in several minutes.
“Are the stars out tonight?” I ask. He once was an amateur astronomer, and like many such fathers he occasionally set up the telescope on clear nights and arranged stars on bedroom ceilings. On my ceiling anyway, perhaps because they were one thing he could give me—a girl with three brothers—that didn’t involve sports. How long was he up on the ladder, chart and ruler and pencil in hand, mapping the cosmos precisely?
“I don’t know,” he says gravely. “I didn’t look up. But I’m sure they’re out there.”
Sometimes we must ask a question again and again to get to the heart of something. I returned to the museum several weeks later to attend a gallery talk about Black Plank because, though I wasn’t sure what my question was, I wanted another go at it. The McCracken plank, I had to agree, was the mother of all planks, but so far I had neither liked nor disliked it—yet I wasn’t ready to resign myself to indifference.
This time I took the metro, surfacing at the National Archives—home to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I bypassed the West Building’s grand staircase and went directly to the East Building’s street-level entrance, which turned out to be a fitting gateway to my ultimate destination: the façade was undergoing repairs, so visitors had to pass through a plywood tunnel to get to the front door. But this wasn’t just any plywood tunnel. It had been painted pearl gray to match the façade’s marble veneer and had an overlay of bold geometric cutouts.
The discussion was conducted by Sally and Sydney, two of the museum’s educators. I’ d heard Sally before; she’s an engaging lecturer who plays a not-insubstantial role in the lives of many middle-aged and elderly women. There were twenty of us in all, sitting on folding stools so small I was afraid I’ d fall backwards into a Mel Bochner “language fraction”: the words over/in painted on the wall.
Sally started out by introducing Sydney, a recent graduate of Princeton who, sadly for the Gallery, was soon bound for further schooling. Sydney, added Sally, was “particularly crazy about Black Plank.” And then Sydney, relaxed and immediately likeable, explained why she was attracted to it, and to all of Minimalism: because it’s “hard” and “not so obvious.” It’s a very literal art, she said moments later, “it is what it is”—and I, remembering that one sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at once, kept silent about the contradiction.
Minimalist artists were reacting against the gestural, Sydney explained, and in particular they had rejected Abstract Expressionism, in which the heart and soul of the artist are poured onto the canvas. Minimalism is cool, often making use of industrial materials. Whether or not the object is actually made by the artist doesn’t matter. McCracken, however, makes his own planks, though he takes great pains to eliminate all signs of his handiwork. He coats the plywood in fiberglass to make sure the grain won’t show through, and then he applies layer after layer of resin, sanding and polishing with power tools for days. He’s a bit of a mystic, Sydney confirmed, beholden to the monolith, suggestive as that is of a supreme being.
I noticed as we were talking that we barely looked at Black Plank, even though it was right there in front of us. That neither Sally nor Sydney turned around to glance at it. This wasn’t necessary, really. As Sydney had said, “You see it all in one go.” Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to talk about. Someone in our group was quick to say that although Minimalism might be cool, she found Black Plank to be “very emotional and unpredictable.” I almost looked down, as if this were an intimate confession. Someone else brought up the work’s resemblance to hand-waxed surfboards—the West Coast Minimalists (of which McCracken was one until he moved to New Mexico) worked, after all, in a car-and-surfboard culture. Sally added that the LA Minimalists were derided by some critics for having a “finish fetish,” a label that stuck. Someone else followed up on that, saying Black Plank’s reflectivity is very important, by which she seemed to mean that, without it, Black Plank wouldn’t be Black Plank. Sally mentioned the importance of placement, stressing that Black Plank cannot be fully grasped unless it’s “installed,” and I had to keep from laughing out loud because to install Black Plank couldn’t possibly mean anything other than to lean it against a wall, and as far as I could tell it didn’t matter which side did the leaning.
A woman who described herself as a documentary filmmaker asked if narrative is embraced or eschewed by Minimalists. Should she keep trying to discern in Black Plank a story? (Answer: probably not.) Then a man sitting in the back said something about the narrative being repressed. The Freudian implications were taken up by the man next to him. Both men, I think, were curators. I strained to follow the conversation, but their voices didn’t quite reach me; the room’s acoustics bounced sound around. I thought I heard the second man say that anything made by a human being will have something of the human in it, and that narrative is there precisely by virtue of its not being stated. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this while trying to hear what he said next. I leaned forward, even cupped an ear, but it was no use. His words trailed off. They got sucked out of the room or dissipated on the spot, or maybe they headed straight for the ether.
One fall afternoon, as we walk around the block, I try to engage my father in a conversation about all the places we’ d lived before my parents’ divorce: the cities and suburbs and small college towns we called home that never truly felt like home because we didn’t stay in any of them quite long enough. I want to know where he was happiest, but he hesitates and then turns the question around. Not the tiny upstate New York town where I’ d gone to high school, I say—not after living in Chicago.
Remind me again what I did there, he says. I tell him that he had taught at the college and had also directed a program there. Oh that’s right, he says quickly, and I’m grateful he no longer feels the need to hide the gaps in his memory, though this means another layer has been peeled away and tossed to the wind. A thick layer—five years. If we’re to be together we must go further back in time.
I don’t know what my father had envisioned for his retirement, but I had hoped—we all had hoped—that although he might write a book, or continue to lecture now and then, he’ d also finally have time to get to know his children, and his children’s children. The more my questions to him go unanswered, however, the more I understand that this time in his life might have been a chance to get to know him, without his heavy mantle of mission and responsibility. Or is this illness in some perverse way that chance? But what remains of a person after he’s been stripped of what he had made of himself? After the ego has become disengaged and the accomplishments have been forgotten, but before all else is lost? Is there a core or essence, there from the beginning? Or is what’s left more like fragments?
A small thing: after our walk, my father manages to find the fly swatter, and I am reminded for the first time in decades of how delighted I was as a child when a fly was loose in the house and he’ d go after it with a vengeance. How could this be a grown man’s battle, I recall wondering—a man the size of my father?
Because of their shape, and because to regard them is to be in them, it’s almost impossible not to anthropomorphize McCracken’s planks. The next time I peeked into Black Plank’s room I found a painting in its place. Sally happened to be there, having just completed a tour, so I asked her where it had gone. “I don’t know,” she said, eyes widening, and we both let out a giggle, for it was as if the plank had up and wandered off.
In the late 1960s, a lanky California artist named Scott Grieger began a series of fifteen “impersonations,” one of which was of a McCracken plank. “It was a brainteaser to come up with an adequate impersonation of his sculpture,” Grieger wrote in the text accompanying the black and white photographs that documented his work. “After ruminating about what to do for some time . . . it eventually became clear to me that becoming stiff as a board and simply leaning against a wall made perfect sense for a McCracken.” A New York Times critic, finding the planks “so ready and yet so closed,” felt they leaned in a way that evoked ladies of the night. Noting that McCracken was “physically plankish,” an interviewer once asked him whether he was making himself. McCracken laughed and said, “Yeah, probably. You do something and it tends to be a self-portrait. I suppose if I were chubby I’ d tend to do chubbier pieces.” (The planks had to be about two feet taller than the human body, he said, to include the body’s energy field.)
Maybe this simple recognition of—or longing for—like form explained why I couldn’t help but look in on Black Plank whenever I happened to be at the museum, in the same way you might feel compelled to glance through an open door along an office corridor whether or not you know the person sitting at his desk. Whether or not that person might nod back.
Early in the New Year I catch up with Black Plank in a tiny, out-of-the-way room on the museum’s third floor, now part of an exhibit titled There is nothing to see here. The title issues a challenge, but of the fifteen or twenty people who come and go inside of several minutes only a few appear to study the plank, or the piece of cardboard painted all-over white, or the dozen or so miniature all-black canvases distinguishable only by their frames, or any of the other similarly self-effacing works. Having already spent time with the plank, I too give it not much more than a glance—just enough to notice that it’s lost the bit of cheer the Stella had given it, finding no colors to reflect in its new location, though “reflect” gives the wrong impression because the colors seem to come from within.
Still, I’m oddly glad to find it here, even in its more somber state. The plank is by now quite familiar, if no less mystifying. It’s not mystical, not in the McCracken sense, but inscrutable all the same. If the plank were to function as McCracken said he wishes—if, by looking into it, you could glimpse the future—I would know that McCracken will not outlive this show, nor my father the year. But as it is, in this small, quiet room of nearly invisible works, in which (as the wall text has it) “the very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them,” time seems to linger in the present, if not stand still. You can almost hang on to it. Only by leaving this room will you be pitched into the future.