(Some of the pictures are by Amy Lawson, who'll always brave NYC traffic for art adventures.)
When I was little, I was obsessed with the Beatles, and with John Lennon in particular. I loved him so much and I vividly remember that I was dusting behind the piano on the night that he died. So it was with a sense of reverence that I watched Imagine at age twelve, but I don’t remember anything about it but this: The day that John met Yoko, she showed him her art. He climbed up a white ladder to a magnifying glass that hung from the ceiling, held the glass up to the seemingly blank white painting suspended horizontally above the ladder, smiled and said. “It says yes.”
So, John’s meeting Yoko became my little self meeting what art could really be. I don’t think any other piece of art has shaped me the way that the Yes Painting did, as a creative person and as a human. I got to see it once before, in a silent, near deserted basement gallery at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art. That day around fifteen years ago I spent probably an hour with it, drawing it, seeing every angle, squinting up to read the “yes,” feeling uplifted to be near this thing that had helped me to understand creativity the way I still do—as acts of love and affirmation, tiny but the strongest thing in the world: yes.
Yesterday, it wasn’t so quiet. The MOMA is free on Friday evenings and it was heartening but overwhelming to see people lined up around the block to get in. Amy considered me her personal hero for having bought tickets in advance so we wouldn’t have to wait. Even in a jangled, crowded room, the ladder brought me such a sense of stillness and joy, and I noticed something I hadn’t seen last time, or had forgotten: On the top step, in yellowed, old-fashioned label tape: Fly.
There was a sign on the ladder’s pedestal that said “Do not touch,” but for me, it should have said “Do not hug.” I love other artworks, but not with this much real, physical affection—it was like seeing a beloved friend after a long time.
In the next room, at the center of the whole exhibition, was “To See The Sky,” a black metal spiral staircase that reached the skylight at the top of the museum.
I’d had it mildly spoiled by some New Yorker’s Instagram, but it was still breathtaking to realize that after all these years, I could climb Yoko’s art. There were four or five people ahead of me in line, so I watched them climb and saw this:
And this—Glass Keys to Open the Skies:
The folks ahead of me climbed the (gently, it seemed like) swaying stairs to the skylight, took pictures from various angles, and came down. They didn’t give any clues to what they were experiencing. It looked a little scary, but as I said to Amy, Yoko Ono would never hurt me. Also, I was glad to be wearing leggings, as I was about to climb with an audience.
I’d been dreaming about ascensions and partial ascensions all summer: The glass staircase in the Des Moines Art Museum that always makes me nervous, a steep road to heaven that disappeared near the top into mirage and sky, a plane that was supposed to cross the ocean but instead landed in a beautiful field. Somehow I understood that if I took this staircase all the way up, those dreams would be resolved and I would move forward in some real way.
But it was much harder than I thought. This staircase was engineered to shake and sway as you walked up, and shook more as I went higher. I’d wanted to take pictures, but I had a death grip on both the railing and my phone, too petrified even to put my phone in my pocketbook. My heart was pounding by the time I got halfway up, but I knew that I’d be disappointed if I turned around too soon. I took a deep breath, kept my eyes on the skylight, and kept climbing.
I shook with the art as I went up and when I got to the second to last step, it took everything I had to take the last one. I looked out of the skylight over the city, smiled down at the bystanders, and braved the descent.
“You can do it!” said a stranger coming in from the Yes Painting room.
“It’s really shaky!” I said.
“You’re almost there!” said the pretty girl who was next.
“That was so much harder than I thought!” I exclaimed once my feet were on the floor. I shook all the way through opening the little door to each “Box of Smile” hidden in the wall beside the staircase:
Back at the original ladder, I understood something I hadn’t before: it’s rickety. It isn’t very high, but to climb up and see the “yes” would be precarious at best. You would have to have a certain amount of trust to climb it. In The Courage to Create, Rollo May posited that creativity is always a little bit of a battle with the gods, and I could feel it in those last steps, in these two ladders—and I could feel myself winning.
There were so many other beautiful things to see. She once sold mornings: (forgive my blurriness)
And there was Grapefruit, the book of conceptual pieces we used in poetry class a few weeks back:
There were lovely Zen-moment poems everywhere:
and a room where everything was in half:
and this, which made us get choked up:
and "Piece to Be Stepped On:"
And "Three Spoons"
and a white chess set, to be played until players can't:
and a button in the gift shop that said this:
And I can, because I'm part of art, and art is invincible.