Please Return

I’m supposed to be writing about archives for Charles Duncan. This will force me to revisit my dissertation on stuff. No, I have never written a dissertation on stuff, but I could. The nature of stuff—why we have stuff, why some stuff is important, why it’s important to preserve certain stuff for the public good, what separates memory and the evidence of a life from an archive, what makes that stuff so important.

Charles knows all about this kind of stuff.

He contacted me just after my mother, Rose Slivka, died: “We’d like to complete the archive.” Charles worked for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art doing a lot of outreach, shaking trees to see what fruit would fall. He had no idea he would be helping me to move fifty boxes of assorted papers upstairs from the basement of my mother’s house. He had no idea his rented van would be the tiny circus clown car to my mother’s deeds.

In second or third grade my class discussed what work was, but I couldn’t find “art critic” or “sculptor” on the general list. Jobs like doctor, lawyer, scientist, engineer, teacher, shoemaker, baker, pilot, grocery clerk, and banker appeared on the list alongside happy rosy-cheeked cartoon illustrations, but not those of my parents. It was hard to explain my parents to people who were not in the art world. Slow nods and bewildered looks followed my inarticulate explanation of what a sculptor does: “That’s his job?” “A craft writer? What is that?” Imagine a seven-year-old trying to explain the studio craft movement of the ’60s to her teacher: Don’t you get it? Why is this so hard? I would resort to a lot of hand movements and fingers meshing together to demonstrate what happens when art and craft mix, like when fingers plunge into wet clay. In the end, just “writer”—more vague than mysterious—would suffice for my mother and bring the conversation to a satisfactory end.

Without the validation of the outside world, it was hard to know if what my parents did was real. Eventually the complexity and mysterious nature of art became the very singularity of my dark teenage heart. My family was a question that could not be answered easily. With a healthy disdain for the world in general, I was good with that.

“You have some of my mother’s stuff? What do you have?”

“Oh, about three linear feet,” Charles answered, like an archivist. I guess I should have been more specific.

It was strange to think of my mother’s scribbled notes on paper plates and stacks of paperwork that crowded every available space of our home in a container somewhere in Washington, D.C.. I’ve seen Raiders of The Lost Ark. I know how these things end.

Charles did help me realize some things:
a) Other people think my mother’s stuff is important.
b) My mother’s stuff is an archive.

When I think of archives, I think of tidy libraries, the contents of which have been catalogued to the letter, the date, their place in the world and in the culture, with sub-references to other people, places, and things: a tidy sea of nouns. I think of wood and sleek modern metal cabinets: expensive. I think of flat files, acid-free archival paper, acid-free linen mounting tape, acid-free everything, temperature control, dehumidifiers, and gloves. I think of women in tailored dresses or slacks of an earth tone, eyes subtly accented by strands of lovely muted stones, finished with confident, unassuming yet sophisticated heels; men in trousers the color of rocks, crisp, clean, pressed shirts, and shoes—probably Italian leather—that have been polished to emanate a glow rather then to reflect light, with laces demurely tucked beneath a hem tailored to ride that mysterious line between heel and shoe throat. Women and men as sleek and refined as the environment in which they do their auspicious work. They read, catalogue, and prepare for preservation those things that tell us the story of who we are and what has happened in the culture. Their job is to care for this evidence of life and remove it from the ordinary lifespan of things in conversation with their environment, remove it from the process of decay.

Ordinarily, paper becomes dry and brittle over time. Given enough time under the right conditions, it will turn back to the dust from whence it came. To some, this is the poetry of existence. I’ve seen it happen. Paper that is seemingly intact one moment and crumbles into nothing the next. I’ve done it. Paper and ink that in some blessed state of neglect has managed to hold onto itself and stay intact like some footprint dried into a chunk of sand. With a single poke, my fingers, with their caustic humanity—their toxic mix of oil, dirt, and electricity—had undone the delicate balance concocted by nature and neglect that had previously worked so beautifully to preserve the forgotten ephemera. The lack of atmosphere that occurs in neglect is the same as the one that occurs in the hyper-care of an archive: both are dependent on the absence of disturbance; both have the evidence of time removed. The only other natural element these environments are subject to is gravity, but even this in a moment of sufficient settling will cease to come into play. The room that is sealed and forgotten versus the room in which everything is planned with infinitesimal exactitude: my situation is the former. Not by decision or design, but by life and its daily demands. This is one of the atmospheric conditions under which my archive thrives in obscurity and neglect.

In 2004, my mother—an art critic for the East Hampton Star, editor-in-chief of Craft Horizons magazine and (in her words) a closet poet—had passed away. After surviving the Great Depression in New York City, World War II, new- and old- world sexism, new- and old-world betrayals, the ’70s, a bitter separation, two teenagers, the ’80s, and several car wrecks, her heart broke and I think she got tired. She was working right up to the minute I took her to the hospital for the last time.

All of her evidence of work and life had been stored into boxes in the basement—a tomb to work, deeds, and family come and gone.

I’d like to say she made a glamorous and comfortable life for herself and us kids, but she wrote about art and secretly wanted to be a poet. This meant we were poor, and she was always hustling.

Anyway, my point is rather like the tip of an iceberg. The massive iceberg below the water line being the work she produced, the pages and pages and hours and hours it took to get the tiny tip above the water line to pierce the collective consciousness. And at the end she earned her place in art history and made a large impression on anyone who worked with her.

I watched her work, procrastinate, stall, and push deadlines. I watched her enthrall, bewilder, scandalize, horrify, outrage, and joyously enlighten everyone around her. Everyone who knew her has a Rose story.

Maybe I am the daughter who can’t let go. I got her boxes when she died. She made no plans for them. One hundred and twenty boxes of everything she did in the world before there were computers and hard drives going back to the 1940s. Charles helped me move them all and I have been storing it since I had to sell her house—like moving an entire graveyard. This is another thing that happens in an archive; when the items are removed from their context, they become artifacts.

I realize I haven’t even said the word “mom”to address my mother in over ten years—we’ll make that eleven years. Eleven happens to be my favorite number, as in “This amp goes to eleven”: anything that is epic and beyond question goes to eleven, like my mother Rose. You have to understand something about Rose in order to understand her archive: she retained everything. Every piece of information was material. Every piece. And of course all this material held information that she could use and intended to use.

Printed. On paper.

Lets say Rose’s work spanned from 1940 – 2004. Even when, in the ’80s and ’90s, she stored drafts of work on floppies (she never did graduate from her beloved DOS system, writing her documents in Leading Edge software and WordPerfect well after the Mac computer), she still had to have the hard copy. Had to have the hard copy. Multiple copies of copies—just in case.

It’s a lot of fuckin’ paper, man.

And I can’t just throw it out, or make a bonfire, or make dresses for hipsters. The things that divide an archive from stuff are specific collections that represent shared culture, and in our case items so unique—art history so close to the source that at times it is the source itself.

“You should read me,” complained my mother. “I’m very popular, I have fans, I get fan mail; I won awards! People like my writing.” “Why don’t you like me, why don’t you know who I am?” was what I heard. How could I explain, when I barely knew myself? I knew that the written Rose was different from the Mama Rose, and I wanted the Mama Rose. I wanted the vital, spontaneous woman, not the written, edited, and curated version. So maybe I was a little resentful of the written Rose. Deny the written Rose and elevate the mother, my mother. Something like that. If I didn’t read her, then I wouldn’t know her as others did, and they wouldn’t know her as I knew her and that was my prize. And I got to hear all the stories, all the dirt. The back stabbings, adulteries, and betrayals. Her deepest darkest suspicions and her cunning observations.

Ok, so I’m a little protective. Who can explain a little girl’s love?

“Mommy, I love you this much,” throwing my small, little-girl arms out as wide as they could go, a little disappointed that they couldn’t go wider.

In her boxes is the evidence behind the stories, and then there are the stories I never heard—the court appearances. I try to take notes as I go through, to keep a kind of sideways narrative.

Rose writes, on January 2, 1985: “Today is the day I break through to tomorrow.”

I write in response in 2010 from the photography studio that I have rented to store and sort her things: “Today is the day I translate hieroglyphics.”

Another furied afternoon of filing, tossing, and bewilderment. Are the jewels among swine the shining examples and telling winks from the nonsense signs of life? Like the visitor pass from the health club that clearly states it is to be returned to the front desk? Not a chance. This is Rose Slivka. You at The Manhattan Health Club have no idea who you are dealing with, let alone trying to direct.

For whatever reason (and I was NOT the nicest daughter to her), she trusted me.

She entrusted drafts with shorthand markings, paragraphs that were cut and paste, and the criticisms of other editors. She entrusted correspondence from friends, from co-workers (in the days before email) and the world at large, which was very large for Rose because she got A LOT of mail. Invitations to lecture, course materials for classes she taught on art criticism, art invitations, press releases, and slides. Yes, slides, from the days before JPEGs (imagine Paul Simon singing Kodachro-o-ome—okay, don’t). Sheets of plastic binder sleeves with little pockets just the right size for a slide. Lots of those, hundreds of those, with a neatly written or stamped request to “Please Return.”

Ok, so maybe I’m a little like my mother.

I lug her life in work like a carcass from storage to storage unable to give her up, return her to the earth or to the public. I have become expert in boxing and stacking.

My archive is similar to a cross-section of stratum, a slice from the ground that tells the stories of earth and time. There are layers and layers of stories. As the boxes stack up, the heaviest books are at the bottom; then those papers most dense—pamphlets and mail next; topped with those boxes that have been clarified and simplified with a single subject or cultural movement floating at the top, blooming like lilies.

Besides the personal expense of keeping this archive, there is the personal expense of being drawn into the past when I belong in the present with my daughter. But that’s just it: we are all connected. It’s important to know the stories of the past and know where we came from. The cultural roadmap, the recipe for how we became, the bones, the joists, the layers of paint we need to know in order to maintain this house of who we are. An archive is like the manual with instructions on how to operate this humanity in case we forget.

I have made the appropriate donations, and I will do more. Have to do more. But not until I get to know my mother a little better and read her like she asked.

Contributor

Charlotte Slivka

CHARLOTTE SLIVKA is completing her degree at the New School in the Riggio: Writing and Democracy honors writing program, where she is also the editor-in-chief of the 12th Street Journal. She plays guitar in the band SuperX.

ADVERTISEMENTS