How could he just smear some blocks of color on a canvas and call it good? Who did this guy think he was? I was enraged when I first learned about Mark Rothko.
There I was, frowning at the little splotches of red and yellow paint in my textbook while the lecture droned on. The bell rang, I closed my textbook, and I didn’t think of Rothko again- until this week.
As I walked peacefully through the galleries of the MoMA in New York, I scanned the rooms – Kandinsky’s clean cuts of shapes, Klimt’s shimmering goddesses, Katz’s flat planes of pigment… and then a massive canvas of molten orange and yellow. A Rothko. This was different, I liked it. It looked nothing like the harsh blotches of color that I had seen in my textbook.
The tints faded into one another, they were soft, sensual. After timidly approaching the next painting, I saw that, under the layer of brown, a deep blue lay discreetly underneath and shone through. It was as radiant and luminescent as Klimt’s The Kiss.
The gallery security guard shifted nervously on his feet as I became enveloped in the painting, I hadn’t noticed I was so close to the work. Sorry, sir. Backing up, I plopped down on the bench and faced the massive, harmonious canvas.
Peace at last.
The feathery rectangles looked like soft pillows and blankets, I wanted to enter the painting and sink into a deep sleep. It was visual numbing for the mind, a buzzing sensation, a deep tissue massage to my brain. John Elderfield says, “As your eyes settle to it, things start to happen.”
Beginning to adjust, my eyes began to flick from one hue to the next, stimulating a mix of colors made entirely by my brain that was not physically on the canvas. For example, after I stared at the blue for a long time, I shifted to the yellow and saw a tint of green. It seemed almost as if I were creating my own painting, from this already existing painting! Whhhaaattt? “You are the companion to the picture,” says Elderfield. And I couldn’t agree more. Never before had I felt like such an active participant in the process of viewing a painting. I felt so special; it seemed that the colors were competing for my attention.
I left the room feeling airy and weightless, a converted Rothko fan (I even caved for some Rothko greeting cards from the MoMA gift shop).
The days following my New York visit were riddled with stress and anxiety as I made my move away from home. What am I going to cook? A shoe?! Who knows. Every day is a surprise. Luckily, I had a trick to cope with my scattered thoughts. I close my eyes; I think about that Rothko. The colors hover in thin air, a few deep breaths, I open my eyes, and voila. I have pulled myself back down to earth.
After researching more about Rothko and his work, I have cycled back to where I started- dismayed. He did not at all intend for his paintings to be a source of comfort or familiarity. In fact, he even said that if viewers of his work were “doing it right,” they were supposed to cry. Frantically I scrolled to the next article hoping maybe this was just a false claim. Again, I was wrong. Rothko once said to a friend, “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration- all of these at once. I would like my paintings to have the quality of such moments.”
No, no it can’t be!
Everything I thought that Rothko stood for in this paintings, shattered. Instantly I was flooded with self doubt. Did I look at the painting wrong? Is that even possible? Why was I incapable of feeling what he worked so hard to communicate? What did I miss? Where I had felt familiarity, he had meant mystery. Where I had felt comfort, he had meant threat. Where I had felt peace, he had meant frustration.
I’m still struggling to grapple onto the new meaning of Rothko’s work. But, which is the real meaning- my personal opinion, or his intended message?
This brings me to my new philosophical question about art: Can the “meaning” of a work of art deviate from (or, in my case, be the total opposite of) the artist’s intent? I think yes. I feel that my emotional reactions to Rothko’s paintings are still valid.
Have you ever felt dismayed by an art piece? If so, which art piece? What did you discover about the piece or artist that contradicted your opinions? I am curious to hear about your thoughts in the comments.
Header Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled (1952)