I first visited the Yale University Art Gallery with my French class after we had just finished reading a play called “Art.” Before guiding us to the snow shovel from Duchamp’s “Readymades” or to Pollack’s “Arabesque” — both works intended to revolutionize our definition of art — my teacher thought we should see the stairwell. She really liked it there. When her family came to visit from abroad, she took them to the gallery for the stairs alone. In class, she pointed out to us how the steps wound up to the roof in a spiral, and the sky was all that remained above. I liked the idea of visiting a gallery of art for its staircase alone, of seeing a staircase as a reason for skygazing.
Curious about the history of the Yale University Art Gallery, I visited the University archives tucked away in a corner of Sterling Memorial Library. I expected to write about history — not about small staircases like this one. But at my research session in the archives, I found a guest book from the early days of the gallery and searched for snippets of stories from visitors, perhaps something unanticipated or profound, rather like those I’ve seen at inns tucked away in the countryside. Instead, I saw only names, dates and locations. Yet still, they shaded in the faint beginnings of portraits. Perhaps it is an idiosyncrasy of mine, but I believe one can learn oceans from a person’s handwriting. And Miss Nora G. Lemmes’ thin, delicate script stood out to me on a page covered in inkblots. She was demure and put together, quiet but attracted attention. I felt certain I knew her. And, in some sense, I did — in all likelihood, no one else had ever paged through that guest book and paused, drawn to the way she signed her name. That signature had been a handshake, a “Hello how do you do?” to me and only me, because no one else had ever looked closely enough.
Reading this guest book, looking at old letters and pictures, listening to my French teacher, I began to curate a different type of gallery in my mind. Not the type that would be exhibited in a museum, not one that most people would ever even see, but a gallery all the same. I rather liked this gallery tucked away, this focus reversed. Watching blurry faces form from letters and pages, I found myself connected to the distant souls who found solace in the quiet gallery rooms where I sometimes studied. And that is strangely beautiful.
In the archives, I found a letter addressed to the gallery from a donor while he was at the Army Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945, surrounded by “buildings in all conditions of tar paper and wall board — not in the least reminiscent of the gallery’s eight-foot walls. Or is it seven?” I too thought of the gallery’s walls. A staff member answered this letter, not mentioning the walls, but telling instead of the other workers: “The harem continues to laugh and weep and work.” I wondered who made up this harem. Some things you cannot know, no matter how closely you look. “Taylor died at the end of November. His place will be impossible to fill, but I believe we have enough of his disciples to carry on,” another staff member wrote to a concerned friend of the gallery. Each place impossible to fill, yet still the gallery filled them and carried on.
Through letters and notes, I got to know one of these beloved workers, a Miss Caroline Rollins. Friends addressed her in letters as “Sweetheart,” “Lovely,” “Cally”; I’d never met a Caroline who went by Cally before. “Phyllis was transformed — radiant … But that ain’t nothing compared to the glow I’ll get when C.R. has something similar to report … And damnit you’d better tell me,” Mrs. Charles B. Wakeman wrote to Cally about a mutual friend’s pregnancy. Looking through the gallery’s records, I expected to find notes on exhibits and administrative issues, but I must confess I was glad to have instead found such intimate glimpses into friendships I didn’t know existed, to hear voices almost no one heard anymore. I imagined Mrs. Wakeman visiting the gallery, walking past the walls lined with rare works of art to sit with Cally instead, chatting about Phyllis and other friends. I thought I might like Cally too.
My favorite discoveries were the fleeting glimpses of artists, enthusiasts, odd birds searching for a home, a place to belong, and maybe, just maybe, finding it in the gallery. I’m curious about the man who wrote to the gallery on “Windsway Farms: Home of Happy Cows” stationary. Another woman wrote to the gallery in electric-blue ink and closed her note with a picture — a reimagining of the traditional smiley face, with a straight line for a mouth and eyes that have dark pupils, green irises and thick eyelashes. Perhaps the illustration was meant as an allusion to modern art. Squiggles in red, yellow, orange, blue rose from the top of the illustrated head; an arrow labeled the squiggles “brain storm.” I wondered if “brain storm” referred to the feeling the gallery evoked in the prospective donor or was simply a standard quirk of her signature. I never came across this “brain storm” again. Perhaps she was one who floated in and out of the gallery without notice. Such short encounters with such lovely strangers.
A gallery regular named Lois wrote to request an exhibition on “one of the greatest contemporary sculptors, Jacques Lipchitz.” She was “an obscure collector and an ardent admirer of Lipchitz’s work” and concluded her note “With (not too sincere) apologies for the outburst, and a truly sincere interest in the Yale Art Gallery.”
Lois never saw her exhibition on Jacques Lipchitz. The YUAG had a policy to never host exhibitions featuring just one artist. They preferred to incorporate a variety of works in one show. So Lois’s feelings were preserved only by a letter on a fragile sheet of paper, ink fading. There was even something beautiful in the fragility of remaining memorials like that sheet of paper, something in its ephemerality that made it more worth preserving.
I looked at sources precious in the ways that they were falling apart; the pages of the guest book no longer held together, and the binding flaked off as rust-colored dust. My fingers stained red. I turned to a photo taken during the gallery’s construction. Buildings with beams jutting out from their walls lined an empty street; lines, crisp at first, grew fuzzy in the distance. I couldn’t see any further down the street leading towards the unknown of years past, a street lined with the names of people I would never know, a reminder of the empty frames in my gallery tucked away, the portraits that I would never see.
The thought hinted at a past slowly fading away with memory. Yet, our understanding of the past and of humanity comes from images noticed at random and blurring at the edges of memory — those beautiful moments when eyes open wide, unblinking. And I find something beautiful in the looking, in the promise that if we look closely enough, we would see a small piece of someone worth remembering — for the funny little things they sometimes said, for our common humanity, for nothing and everything about them.