The invitation came by mail. I thought it was for a wedding. The envelope was 6x4 inches, its paper cream-colored, thick. Both had heft. There was no return address. My name and address were printed with black ink, written in Spencerian script, most likely with a nibbed fountain pen. I didn’t open it right away because I couldn’t imagine whom among my chums would be getting married; or re-married. Heck, even re-re-married. And if it was anyone beyond a first cousin, no way I was going to the Midwest.
It bulged on the malaise that is my desk until the next morning. When I finally did open it, I found a note, written in the same handwriting, on the same paper, as the envelope. It began, ”Most Estimable Sir.” It was all of five sentences long, written in that obsequious tone with which 18th century novelists wrote letters to the patrons who sponsored their book. It informed me that I was invited to a one-on viewing of an art show. No teaser image, no contact or artist name, no sponsoring gallery. Nothing.
The directions were, to say the least, puzzling. The 22 East, the 55 North, Chapman Avenue, Laguna Canyon Road. The middle of nowhere. Christ, I’d be crossing the Orange Curtain. Passing through the Orange Curtain troubled me more than the utter oddness of everything else. Still, what made me, the inveterate unattender of openings, want to go wasn’t so much the anticipation of what I’d see but the fact that whoever had invited me had exquisite penmanship. That Saturday, one o’clock, sharp. I wondered who else was invited. And whether there would be drinks.
Saturday comes. Of course it’s raining. By now I’m curious. If all went to hell, I could stop off at Cook’s Corner on the way back, have a beer, a chili dog, play some pool. Hell, maybe get a tattoo. Mostly though, I just wanted the experience, which of course would become a story, which of course, one way or another, would be recounted, first in a bar and then on the written page.
Ho hum, the drive. The exit off Chapman, up and then down and then up the grade to Laguna Canyon Road. Past Irvine Park, past Irvine Lake, past Cook’s Corner. A left turn into Modjeska Canyon. Well now. I knew – and until then had forgotten – the area from when I was a kid. Fishing excursions on a purple Schwinn Sting Ray, cheese for bait, the perils of dehydration and melanoma not a concern. And there I was, at Helena Modjeska’s house. Ages ago, when I first saw it, I thought it was the most magnificent house I’d ever seen. Mind you, I was 11 at the time. Modjeska was a late 19th-century actress, Polish. Why she decided to settle there I never learned. At the time it must have been like settling on the dark side of the moon.
No one was around. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen anyone in the drive through the canyon, either. I parked off to the side, between the house and what I imagined used to be a garage and went to the front door. A note, on the same paper as the invitation, with the same handwriting, said to go on in, the door’s open. I did.
Still no one. A cheery hello, perhaps higher pitched than intended, got no response. Only then did it get creepy. Empty house, empty canyon, mysterious invitation. And it was still raining. It seemed too somber to be some hipster, middle-of-nowhere art show. This was – well, this was odd. I thought of Alice going down the Rabbit Hole. The place didn’t look lived in. No mail in a basket on a table in the anteroom. No smell of bacon or coffee or patchouli or whatever. In other words, nothing to ransack. But then, neither did it look like a museum or a gallery or some guerilla exhibition space. It just was.
Off to the left a hall, on its floor a carpet. Is that Max Ernst channeling a Navajo design? I followed the carpet. First left, a large, sunny room. And there they were. Paintings. Oil paintings. Large, Salon-sized. 17 of them. Ornate frames, impeccably lit in that otherwise cloudy day room. Impressionist, for sure, by the same artist. The staccato brushstrokes that, from my POV at the entrance, made the seashores and canyon scenes flutter. Who, what, why, and when. The where was obvious. The coast between Laguna and Newport, the canyons that punctuated the western slope of the Santa Ana Mountains.
The artist’s name was painted in the bottom right corner of each piece. I couldn’t tell if it was the same handwriting that penned the invitation. Beneath the names, a few had numbers that I assumed were the years they were painted. But, with the daubs of unmixed color and the scrunched together letters and numbers, I couldn’t make out either the name or the date. The one thing of which I was sure was that the numbers began with either an 18 or 19. Only later did it occur to me to look on the back of the paintings for provenance information.
A product of way too much schooling, I tried to figure out if this was some conceptual stunt – an exact recreation of a late 19th/early 20th century gallery or salon. No luck there. So I did what made the most sense at the time – I spent the next 90 minutes looking mindlessly at the work. An enthralled 90 minutes of looking up close and then pulling back, like I used to do with De Kooning paintings. The actual shadows the paint created; the billowing whitecaps and shushing jacaranda. The place was silent, sepulchral: I imagined I could hear waves crash and tall grass rustle, that I could smell salt water and orange blossoms. Still no one appeared. It occurred to me that I was dreaming, that I had time traveled (I had just read a spate of science fiction novels), that I was hallucinating. When I got home I wondered if I was the subject of a hidden camera, a prank, so I created Google Alerts for, among other things, “sucker art critic,” “Helena Modjeska art collection,” and “phantom art exhibition Modjeska Canyon.” As of this writing, nothing.
The invitation, the 19th century house built by a European in the middle of nowhere, the Impressionist paintings of places I knew and loved: everything seemed ordained. But why (especially, why me?), by whom, I have no clue. It occurred to me to take photos with my phone, to document the place with its video camera. I didn’t, for the simple reason that it would be like trying to photograph a smell, a sound, or a memory.
Of course, documenting it would have made trying to explain it easier the next Monday when I called the National Register of Historic Places. “No,” said the nice lady on the phone, “Arden (as the place is called) is only open by advance reservation and the last reservation was for two weeks ago and the next one is for two weeks from now.” “No,” she said, “the paintings Mrs. Modjeska owned were sold at auction in 1909. “Why yes,” she added, “as a matter of fact, I do believe they were Impressionist in style.”