Today the art world was staggered by news of the discovery in Salem, Oregon of a work of art thought lost, but actually only misplaced. We speak here of M.C. Escher’s unfinished and unique sculptural project: “Stair Steps to Their Beginning.”
This work, commissioned by the then-influential “City of Salem Guild of Avant-Guard Citizenry” (CoSGoA-GC), and located just south of the Salem Public Library’s main branch (part of the 1972 Salem Civic Center), was to be the culmination of Escher’s long line of mischievous images, inscrutably combining surrealist visionary symbolism with an ode to American Local Government Bureaucracy.
Escher, who accepted the commission with great trepidation and would only agree to it when three barrels of pickled herring were made part of the fee, had never before attempted sculpture in any medium. Being nearly two-dimensional himself, he had kept to illustration in his previous works. But, nearing the end of his life and sensing that, as he liked to say: “Vat do zose Salemites know about Platonic solids und Möbius strips, anyvay?!” he took his final artistic gamble.
The commission itself asked only for “an aesthetically-pleasing means of approach to the Senator Wayne Morse De-accession Bin” using “concrete, brick, or Salem’s traditional building material—compressed cherry pits.” This allowed Escher, a notoriously fastidious and economical man, a great deal of latitude.
The budget, considered exorbitant at the time, was $326.13, with $1.50 being donated by the Greater Salem Arts Foundation, $3.57 from the “Memories of Happy Days at Brush College School Club," and a surprising donation of $22.12 from the Crabtree & Scio Retired Air-raid Warden Association. The remainder was given by CoSGoA-GC from its usual source: a share of the massive annual haul from overdue-book fines. This use of library fine funds for public art ended up causing legal wrangling between the CoSGoA-GC and the once-powerful “Guardians of the Public Purse & Dining Society” (or the GPP&DS, usually just referred to as The Salem Grouch Club) that only settled out of court last year.
The plans for the sculpture were drawn up on Escher’s favorite surface of tanned rhino hide (“because it stands up well to humidity and grease-stains from cheese,” the artist maintained) and sent via the Holland-America Line’s SS Statendam to New York City, where they were mistakenly impounded as contraband. After a diplomatic row requiring then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s personal intervention, the plans were released for transport to Oregon.
Construction was complicated by the fact that Escher had made the measurements in cubits rather than the usual feet or meters. Because several different foremen were involved in the execution of the sculpture, and because the foremen’s forearms were not all of the same length, certain irregularities crept into the project—irregularities which speedily led to Escher’s renunciation of the enterprise, his demand for the plans back, and the ultimate termination of construction before completion. The nearby concrete brutalism library building opened on schedule, but the half-completed stairway meant to intrigue people selecting de-accessioned copies of such classics as A Practical Guide to Surviving Nuclear War was gradually forgotten even while it remained in plain view. Sometime in the late 1970s, the Senator Wayne Morse [Memorial] Bin was moved elsewhere and weeds took over the ill-fated spot, aiding its slide (or, perhaps more appropriately, its descent) into obloquy.
In the 1980s an enterprising hot-dog vendor opened a stand at the top of the stairs for a couple seasons, and Vice-President Dan Quayle made his only speech in Salem (during a largely forgotten tour) late one February night from this location. Aside from that, nothing is known about the “dark years” of the Escher Staircase.
Then, two weeks ago, city employee Zelma Flores happened to stumble over the staircase’s lowest step while making her way to the parking structure. Enquiring with library staff about “that big hunk of concrete” and why it was there, she was met with vacant expressions. No one could remember seeing the stairs before! Lost in plain sight, Civic officials had to be taken by hand from their Doge-like isolation in the City Council Chambers to the site of the hidden gem in their midst. Confronting Escher’s partly-completed masterwork, their response was to appoint an outside consultant to study the stairway for possible sale to help fund a proposed third bridge across the Willamette River.
Curiously, Escher himself never visited Salem, but did keep a postcard of the city (actually of Salem, Massachusetts) stuck in his dresser mirror at the Rosa Spier Huis in Laren, Netherlands until his death. The night after his demise, the postcard mysteriously disappeared and then just as mysteriously re-appeared years later in a book on the Salem (Oregon) Public Library shelves. That book was: Years of Upheaval, by Henry Kissinger, last checked out to the author.
The postcard marked a page with these words underlined in lavender ink: “An event that year, involving the hide of a rhinoceros, made clear I must advocate for the opening of China to the West.” Thus, Salem’s too-little-too-late remnant of a milestone (rather than millstone) in art history contributed to the current the World Order.