Pool 17 at Messenger Cafe

by Lucas Wetzel

There is such solitude in that gold.
The moon of these nights is not the moon
The first Adam saw. Long centuries
Of human vigil have filled her with
An old lament. See. She is your mirror.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “The Moon”

On a Wednesday morning last May, finding myself at work and unable to wake up, I decided to step outside for some exercise, fresh air, and to get a bite to eat. I walked south from my downtown Kansas City office, past various hotel construction sites, and over to Messenger, a bustling, modern cafe that opened in late 2017.

Messenger is impressive — a spacious brick-and-glass temple to our city’s collective coffee fetish. The building is also home to Ibis Bakery, and half the ground floor is dedicated to flour-dusted wood tables, stainless steel equipment, and a crew of young bakers cranking out bread loaves, gourmet pastries, and other baked goods.

At the counter I ordered a Kenyan Kabingara single origin coffee that cost $2.40 a cup, or $30 for a 12oz bag of beans. A steep price, but so delicious I wondered if it might almost be worth it. The coffee paired perfectly with my flaky pear and almond paste croissant — a far cry from the rock-hard biscotti and bold, blended “java” from the cramped, smoky coffee shops I frequented in college. Instead of music and conversation, Messenger is filled with the buzz of roasting equipment and the steady clack of laptop keyboards — the sounds of American Millennial industry.

Intending to find a table on the rooftop patio, I walked up a narrow flight of stairs that reminded me of Stephen Holl’s designs for the Bloch Building. On the way up, I noticed a massive painting of a swimming pool at night, its ethereal blue-green waters outlined by sharp geometric edges and surrounded by a cosmic darkness. 

The painting was mounted well out of reach from the stairs and balcony, adding an extra layer of remove to a subject that is already marked by inaccessibility — a pool you can appreciate for its color and craftsmanship, but never get close enough to actually touch.

I know this painting well. It was part of a series of luminous swimming pools by Kansas City artist Robert Bingaman, a close friend who had commissioned me to write about them for his 2015 solo exhibition titled “Until It’s All You See.” 

At the time, I was eager to accept the assignment and confident I would be able to articulate the nuances of Rob’s techniques and artistic vision. I spent hours reviewing the Agnes Martin art book he loaned me, reading some contemporary poets he shared as inspiration, and soaking up as much as I could about the process and contents of the paintings themselves. 

I also helped out in more practical ways, pushing Rob around on a wheeled scaffolding tower as he changed out light bulbs in the massive Studios Inc. exhibition space, cycling through different light temperatures to get just the right effect. It’s a bit atypical for an artist to have to install their own show, but in this case it felt appropriate — a ceremonial midnight errand no one else could be trusted with. 

In between work, painting, and writing, we would hang out at Rob’s expansive studio in the East Crossroads, playing ping pong with friends, drinking beer or wine, and projecting live streams or replays of the Kansas City Royals playoff run and eventual World Series Championship. 

“Until It’s All You See” opened on Friday, November 13, 2015. It was the same day of the terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, and even though I didn’t hear it openly discussed at the opening, there seemed to be a solemn awareness of the day’s events in the air. Torn Label Brewery had just opened in the space next door, and we went through the garage doors several times to get fresh beers, sipping them quietly rather than in celebration. 

I hadn’t seen the paintings in person since then, and on the stairs at Messenger, I observed an unfamiliar feature in this one — the distinct outline of a palm tree stretched across the upper right corner of the pool’s surface. Rob had also been painting a series of palm trees just before the pools. Had he gone back and added a palm tree later as a way to bridge the two series? With another step up, I saw it was just the shadow of an actual potted plant on the second floor. When I climbed up a few steps further, the shadow disappeared. 

The rooftop patio of Messenger was mostly empty, the temperature in the 80s and climbing, easily the hottest day of the year so far. I looked down at Grand Street, the site of the World Series parade four years earlier. The crowds were long gone in both the street and the stadium, but the civic pride and confidence left behind by the back-to-back World Series runs still felt intact. It’s something Rob wrote about in a 2014 essay, articulating in real time how Kansas City’s self-perception as a “loser town” no longer applied. 

Messenger felt born of the same boost in civic pride and economic fortune, a $4 million renovation that would have felt unfathomable when I was growing up in Kansas City in the 1980s. At that time there was no Power & Light District, no Sprint Center, no Streetcar, no grocery store, luxury apartments, arcade bars, scooters, or really much of anything for young people to do downtown. My friends and I like to joke that Kansas City was cooler before it got cool, but in many ways things do seem objectively better now. 

The roof lacked shade, so I went back inside and found an open spot at the counter across from the painting. I let my eyes rest on the pool’s surface, allowing my thoughts to settle as well. It was a refreshing change from four years ago, when I’d restlessly searched for ways to describe the artwork with an intelligence and insight that remained stubbornly outside my grasp. The assignment had forced me to confront the limits of my ability with language to describe art and the concepts that surround it. I tried my best, but still felt like I had failed. When I texted Rob as much that afternoon, he emphasized how trying and failing are just part of the artistic process. “Not to sound too zen about it,” he wrote back, “But at its best, it’s really just about stepping up to the edge.” 

I thought back to 2015 and how so many things have changed since then, both in the city and in my own life. My kids are older, my job is more demanding, and I often experience gallery openings and concerts through social media rather than in real life. Many of the artists I hung out with at the time have moved away for grad school, relationships, or other opportunities. Some days it feels like even my closest friendships are conducted primarily by phone. 

The painting hanging up at Messenger felt like a memorial to those times, while also being rooted in something outside of time completely. Gazing into the vivid glow of the pool, I was struck by the impression that it was a mirror, one that would reflect the truth back to me if I could summon the courage to look and the patience to see.

I thought about death, and how some of my loved ones are probably closer to it than I’d like to think about. I thought about relationships, and how people we are close with today may feel distant tomorrow, while others remain close even if we haven’t seen them in years. I thought about how it’s understandable to try and take control of things in life, but how absurd all this striving looks in contrast to the calm infinitude this painting seemed to represent.

All the things I’d struggled to capture in writing four years ago were now coming unbidden to the surface. I laughed at the sudden flood of insight, realizing as I did so that I had tears in my eyes. I also realized how awkward it might be if someone I knew walked by and saw me crying while staring at a painting. But thankfully no one strolled past or looked up from their laptops. Besides, I had sunglasses on. I was calm and caffeinated, and it was time to leave.

I walked back down the stairs, placed my mug in the tray, and headed outside. The Grand Street sidewalk was baking in the sunlight, and I could tell right away it would be an uncomfortably warm walk back to the office. But at that moment my skin felt perfect — like I’d just stepped out from a cool swimming pool and into the light of the sun. 

*  *  *

Pool #17 is now on permanent display at Messenger Coffee. More of Rob’s artwork, writing, and projects can be viewed at robertbingaman.com. Messenger Coffee Co. + Ibis Bakery is located at 1624 Grand in the Crossroads, and online at Messengercoffee.co.


Categories: Essay