I remember raindrops pattering the red leaves outside the library window. I remember taking a break from work to flip through Ansel Adams’s Yosemite and feeling my heart, like a stressed muscle, relax before vast canyons and mountains. Mostly, I remember an overwhelming sense of being trapped. It was fall of my sophomore year at Amherst College, I was fully estranged from my best friend on campus (a friend whom I truly loved), and each week I had to write several essays. I soon sunk into a routine, living a grid-like existence: quad to class to library to my dorm. Writing, at first, was a refuge; then, it too lost its luster. Before my laptop I felt like Sisyphus with a bum ankle.
Late one October night, I checked the syllabus for my English course, American Extravaganzas. It was taught by American literary critic Geoffrey Sanborn, who named the course for Thoreau’s ecstatic line in Walden: “Extravagance! it depends on how you are yarded.” Our next book was Moby Dick; I decided to wade in. Suddenly, something changed, and the immediate world faded away. As I poured through its pages, I realized that what moments ago had seemed irrecoverable was now present, as if Melville were feeding inside me a dormant creature for whom prose was nourishment for memory and wonder. In Melville’s world I found, for the first time in months, a thrilling place to roam: over briny oceans, into candle-lit New England inns, about the “inmost soul” of his narrator, and out towards the horizon, where the “phantom” of the whale lurked beneath milky seas. When I finally looked up, I realized that I had been walking up and down library rows, book in hand. I was smiling.
Really good books work in different ways. Some offer voices that give meaning to what before seemed confusing, senseless, painful. Voices like these suture the world. And some are like maps that tell you, literally, where to go next. For me, Moby Dick was both, though its effect at first was map-like. “Take to the sea,” our narrator, Ishmael, advises anyone feeling gloomy, as he wanders around Manhattan in the opening pages. Ishmael spoke; I listened. I took to Google. There, I found absurdly expensive boat excursions in Nantucket, saw an opportunity to fish salmon in Alaska (with wages that could have covered my tuition), and finally came upon a dubious Google ad to be a cameraman on Discovery’s Deadliest Catch. Finally, I saw something feasible: a Frank Stella exhibition at the Whitney featuring his Moby Dick series.
Hatched sleepy-eyed at 2 a.m., my plan was to take Amtrak’s Vermonter, from Amherst to Penn Station, at 1:17 p.m. My English class ended at 1:20 p.m.; five minutes before, I simply walked out, ran down the stairs, and hopped on my bike, riding across the grass to a sidewalk that weaved past Emily Dickinson’s home, then turning on a small road that led to a quaint station. There were the tracks. And there was the train.
Sometime in the early 1980s, Frank Stella took his kids to Coney Island to visit the New York Aquarium, which is recognized internationally for its success in raising uniquely healthy, happy beluga whales. He likely would have seen Kathy, an affable whale who loved interacting with human visitors and had lived there since 1974. And he likely would have remembered his childhood summers, which he spent on the coastal town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, where humpbacks are often seen breaching off the coast. Now, face to face with the belugas as they graciously harnessed their smooth white mass and danced through the water, he sensed a new project. “The idea of using a wave came to me,” Stella recalls in a 2015 interview with TimeOut. In the 1980s his work was distinguished for innovative formal design, from radiating concentric forms in the “Black Painting” series to the bright festive shapes in his “Indian Bird” series. But the movement and complexity of a wave, Stella thought, could create a radically different topology, one rich with hidden spaces and intricate curves conveying motion, energy, suspension. Naturally, over the next few weeks, Stella embarked on reading Moby Dick.
As I rode the subway to 14th Street, I knew little of this history. All I knew was that there was a generous spirit in Melville’s novel, a way of making those moments when the “great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open” so palpable, that with each page, I felt more hopeful I could someday find such gates in my life. Stella was living proof, for if Moby Dick breathed energy across media—text to the flames of welding—there might be more breath to go around.
From the first trip I took as a child, I have associated the beginnings of a journey with a special duality: the quietude of the present mingles with the anticipation of motion, as the lapping sea or rising winds promise a gravity and thrill yet unknown. Standing in the Whitney before Loomings (1986), named for the first chapter in Moby Dick, I came upon this feeling once again, as if the sculpture were a conduit for it. Indeed, the piece, with its overlapping curves and angulations, seemed to contain so much stored energy that it could drift off, at any moment, along any one of its dozen planes. To my eye, this energy originated at the leftmost corner, where a slippery, jet-smooth sheet of aluminum, shimmering like a wave in a silver sea, undulated downwards. When the wave reached the sculpture’s center, it acted not as metal but water: one piece sputtered upwards, another disappeared underneath. Meanwhile, at the sculpture’s crux were two dinghy-shaped structures, and on the lower right, a French curve, serving the role of an anchor, was speckled by a substance resembling both sea foam and barnacles. The whole assemblage evoked the hull of a ship, bobbing beside a dock, as waves saturated its bow. Before it, I felt I was standing at the cusp of a sea where the energy of this one silver wave was being repeated endlessly, the rush of foam following, as it does every moment against boats on the Hudson, in the Atlantic, around the world in the Pacific. I could smell brine.
Stella’s sculpture was not a mere translation of the novel. Instead, it spoke of its central concerns—the immensity of the universe, the allure of adventure, the necessity of having a ship, a home, to call one’s own—in a distinctive dialect: the dialect of geometry. As I stood in the Whitney, Moby Dick moved from an abstract voice in my mind to something material. For just as Melville’s wordshad come to inform my thoughts, I wondered, could not those ecstatic lines and planes, shapes and undulations, inflect the geometry of life itself—the paths we walk on, the horizons we see, the edges of a brighter world where, we imagine, we will someday live and laugh and love?
Yes, yes, it could. For though Stella’s Loomingswas rich with motif, it was also interactive, a vehicle for imagination. As I lingered longer, I drifted back to a childhood time when the shapes of the world were endowed with memory, and each foretold another mystery. Now, the hull-like components of Stella’s sculpture conjured that moment in Pirates of the Caribbean when Jack and Will march under the sea in an inverted canoe, inhabiting a submarine Caribbean world; the anchor reminded me of peering down the shadowy slime-covered rope in a lake in the Berkshires, leading to depths where fish and turtles roam; and the wave was a distillation of every wave I had ever known, from those that had churned me onto the coarse sand when I was an unwitting two-year-old playing by the ocean’s edges, to the white-caps that had sent the ferry we took each summer levitating, for a moment, above the sea.
An hour later when the museum closed, I set off walking along the Hudson. Looking out to its swirling, steel-gray water, a few ships slicing upriver, I let the title of the sculpture bob in my head: Loomings. “Loomings,” I said, aloud this time, its meaning clicking: the sense—sometimes only imagined, though no less real—that something is about to emerge, sputter up from that current, take shape amidst this shadow, disappear from the brightness of a new light. Loomings was, in essence, an eternal hope of emergence, the hope that as you move through time, you would find wonder, spaces that promise mystery, energy finding motion—whether in the brightness of day or darkness of night, or within one’s mind, as you begin to write a sentence.
Four years pass. I am living in Los Angeles, and I find myself, on a winter night, dreaming of a beach. In the dream, I am on the shore, and the ocean water is receding into the horizon. The sky is dark blue, streaked with purple, and there are sculptures on the beach, forged of metal and iron and steel. They are Stella’s sculptures, translated into dream-dust. One is a metal curtain that drifts like a blanket against the waves: the water flows through it, creating a mesh pattern of foam. Another, farther up on the sand, is a set of immense, circular yellow shapes. They frame and magnify the horizon, where whales surface for air and dolphins leap in pods. The works seem like Stella’s Grand Armada, another from his Moby Dick series, though I am not sure, and it seems not to matter, for turning from the sculptures, I realize I am not alone. My best friend, my friend from college, is here too. We have, in waking life, been together for two years, and she sleeps beside me. In my dream, we leap and dance and laugh in the dreamscape. Even as the sky turns a purple black, we roam on uninhibited, for there are infinite ways to see and feel here, the sculptures creating on the shore a sacred playground.
Eventually, as the sky turns black and stars flash to sight, we find ourselves atop a dune. And just as we drift to sleep, the sand perfectly cool, my eyes open to the faint light of morning.