by Stephen J. West
“There!” I stepped to the side of the path and stopped. I thrust my hand toward the top of a building a few blocks east of 10th Avenue. There: a water tower: hunkered on the rooftop: the shallow angle of its conical roof: the earthy shake of its shingles: the rusted belts cinched around its driftwood trunk: the rickety steel frame perched discretely above the storefronts that sizzled with traffic along the street below.
I was on the High Line in Manhattan to look for water towers between museum visits, to view their non-art objects as pure form, an exercise in found art where the seeking and finding is as meaningful as the object itself.
To discover a water tower in the elevated landscape of NYC is to encounter a visual discrepancy—a cupcake with a bamboo hat, a rolled up sleeping bag topped with a lampshade, a hay bale with an umbrella—and when I spot one, the pragmatic form as it blooms among the quiet still lives in a city of rooftops, and then another one, I find joy.
I wanted to look for more but the rain started, so I gave up the search and hurried down the stairs and into the Whitney with my son.
I wasn’t interested in the special exhibition that day, so decided to explore the permanent collection on the fourth floor while we waited out the rain. I wanted to see my six-year-old lead by his own interest, to be immersed in a world of art like I like to be and see what he found worth finding there.
I watched him explore and look with knit brow, his intense examination of the 20-foot wall covered with pinned posters of three-color prints of mushroom clouds that pronounce EAT ME, images of Nixon, of penises and missiles, of murdered Asian bodies, the pile of stuffed American marine uniforms strewn in the middle of the gallery, haphazard and inhuman, but human enough to evoke a mass grave.
Is he too young for this? Should I steer him away? I didn’t. I don’t.
After he looked up and looked around to find me, I walked to him and led him to a Lichtenstein painting. He looked at me, and I smirked back, a grin emerging on his face as he looked back at the painting of a toilet, a bathtub, a sink, some tile. i.e. a mundane black and white painting of an empty bathroom in classic Lichtenstein pop-pointillism.
“Can you guess the title of the painting?” I asked. He looked at it, then at me again.
“Bathroom.” He answered with a grin.
I strolled up to a wall of drably colored city landscape paintings on a facing wall. Their muted color schemes and impressionistic paint application evoked a post-industrial depression era scene fit for bony children in in little caps and oversized pantaloons selling newspapers. I looked closely at a delicate painting of a line of buildings as seen from the East River, the geometric staccato of their forms and the line they created highlighted in high contrast by the graded gravel sky behind them.
Apartment Houses, East River, c. 1930. Edward Hopper. I had identified the era correctly, and felt less embarrassed about the cliché image I conjured of what might be unfolding at street level. I was confident those newsies were down there slinging rags, hot off the press, extra extra, read all about it.
My eye moved along the smooth lines of the rooftops of Hopper’s vision of Riverside New York, the hard lines of brick, of windows, of a world of rectangles and 90 degree construction, then, the soft curve of a plump cylinder with a conical top, then another—then three that I missed at first, and another one, the practical and invisible ubiquity of water towers among the rooftops that Hopper had to include to complete an accurate rendering of the city skyline, even in the world of exaggerated brush strokes and impressionistic color palettes. There! In the Whitney, a museum of modern art, I had found dime-sized water towers when I wasn’t even looking for them.
I should have expected to find water towers in a painting of New York from 1930. They look like they are from that bygone era, but they aren’t; they are still relevant; still in use; still made new once every 30 years; and some of their beauty is how they appear to be out of time, the irony that their practical, rudimentary construction, still the most pragmatic and effective engineering, and not just in a bottom-line late-capitalist sense of what is cheap is effective, but in this case, what is cheap and simple is effective, like the first solution to the problem of moving water among the masses in sky city was still the best solution.
I moved through the gallery with reborn purpose, striding through slow-moving lookers, untethered from the obligation of paying homage to all of the things on all of the walls. I was on the hunt for cityscapes and the water towers I knew were huddled there.
When I was around my son’s age, Where’s Waldo was my favorite book. its glossy spreads and overloaded illustrations immersed me in zoomed-out worlds of oversaturated details. The conceit was simple: Waldo was setting off on a worldwide hike with his signature red and white striped sweater and toboggan, coke bottle glasses, walking stick, kettle, mallet, cup, backpack, sleeping bag, binoculars, camera, snorkel, belt, bag and shovel, outfitted for any situation he might encounter. Waldo asked all of us, the readers of the world, to come along with him … the only stipulation was that we had to find him and the things he dropped in each scene.
Waldo with all his cumbersome gear on the corner of a bustling square! There!
Standing on the busiest beach in the world behind some family’s privacy screen, still loaded down with gear! But where is his snorkel? There:
At a ski resort walking by a ramp built over a cabin!
At the airport on the tarmac behind the jet refueling truck!
At a track and field event crammed with too many athletes, fearlessly standing in the middle of the javelin field!
On a cruise ship, half-hidden by the railing right below three green sailors that are just about to burst!
Alone in a pen at the zoo, just behind a hippopotamus that’s slumbering through its alarm clock!
At a hellishly packed bazaar, deciding whether he should buy a pair of green goulashes!
At an amusement park, completely gearless, trotting to catch a lift on a sightseeing trolley!
There! In NYC, a full grown real live man in a Waldo costume as a tourism promotion! In Times Square, doing yoga among hundreds of people doing yoga! In Central Park, feeding ducks! In Rockefeller Center, ice skating for the holidays! But where is his helmet?
The experience provided by that book wasn’t just about how my eye could dart associatively, lingering on any scenario for as little or as long as I liked as I searched for Waldo and his equipment. There was something magical about Waldo, about the situations he wound up in, how he shed his gear throughout his travels as if he could transcend it and become something more than the sum of his parts. It made me search for him even more and hold him in my gaze longer when I found him, scouring every bit of his one-inch frame as intimately as anyone could, like he could just slip away and vanish again if I looked away. Waldo was simple, versatile, and he could hide from the world in plain view. I never questioned why Waldo never changed his clothes, nor why he never hid. I decided Waldo wasn’t trying to hide—he was trying to be found in spite of the world’s efforts to overwhelm him, and I loved him for that.
“Dad!” my son called to me to catch up as I scanned the gallery for paintings of skylines and their darling little water towers. “Follow me,” he said, and reached up to grab my arm. He lead me to that wall of windows on the east boundary of the Whitney’s floor, the rooftop with benches and city views that attract patrons and are usually thronged with art gazers gazing at the city with the same languid pace as they do inside, but with notably more conversation. Today, it was empty, because of the thick wetness of the low cloud.
He led me to the door out to the rooftop, and before we had even stepped out, there!
A large water tower—there—one rooftop over from the Whitney, gray and stoic, unadorned, unavoidable for being so close and dominating the view just across the chasm of the street below.
I took a photo of my son pointing to the water tower he found—the art he knew I was looking for.
Stephen J. West is the author of Soft-Boiled, out from Kelson Books. His writing has been published in Brevity, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other places, and he is the curator of the Undead Darlings broadside series. Currently, he lives in Rochester, NY, where he is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at St. John Fisher College.