Friday, October 7, 2011
When I was an undergrad earning a minor in painting I took a particular interest in Mark Rothko’s work. The University of Alabama is in the country and getting to galleries and museums to see artworks in person wasn’t easy. We learned about art world through words, photographs, and bi-weekly slide lectures. Most of the painting I was able to see in person was representational. And it was all small, paintings that fit in homes and offices and looked nice with the couch, sculptures that looked nice on a mantle. I was bored with these and wanted something new. The books I was reading gave abstraction an air of novelty and power. It could really make you feel something.
Critics and historians described abstraction as explorations of the compositional potential of color and form on the human psyche. Talking about his paintings, Rothko said, “The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.” He said he wanted his work to be a “replenishing resource for an era of spiritual void.” I have been an atheist my entire life and had watched the Baptists I grew up around having intense spiritual experiences that I couldn’t relate to. Being baptized, crying, fainting. Those experiences looked deep and meaningful, profound. [[tell us more about that, earlier!]]I wanted those experiences.
I had my first chance to see some of Mark Rothko’s paintings when I was twenty-two. After graduating from college I moved to Oxford, England. I found out that the Tate Modern had a large portion one of the last groups of paintings Rothko made before he died. His Seagram Murals had been commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in a then new building. They were some of the largest paintings Rothko had ever made and he had worked on them for months. I took a day off of work and bought a bus ticket to London.
After my art history and studio art courses I knew how to look at a painting. And I knew that photographs cannot adequately convey the direct experience of viewing a work of art. In the first place the colors are always at least a little off. And it’s just about impossible to convey any idea about what’s happening on the surface on the work leaving the viewer with all sorts of questions. How thick is the paint? What are the brush strokes like? What colors were laid down first? What are those shapes that seem to be visible under the top layers of paint? Or are they faint colors laid on top? These questions and many more challenge anyone who tries to look at a reproduction of a piece of art. You're not looking at the work, you're looking at a photograph. We're left to rely on someone else's words in the hope of understanding the work in some way.
The main problem is is scale. Especially scale. Rothko’s paintings are huge. In books I had seen studio shots of the artist too high on a ladder stretching to reach upper areas of his large canvases. A painting like that would take up your entire field of view. It is impossible to even begin to describe the experience of standing in front of a painting like that. If the person you’re describing the painting to has seen similar work before, they may be able to develop some vague sense of what the work is like. But for a person who has never had an experience like that, too much is left to the imagination. It might be argued that this must be like staring at a wall of the same color. But it’s not. It cannot be because the wall has not been painted with the intention of creating an emotionally moving experience for the viewer. You cannot imagine the work of a master at the height of his abilities engulfing your field of vision and overwhelming you. This was the experience I wanted. I had to get in front of one of those paintings.
When I arrived in London I went straight to the Tate, straight to the information desk for a map, and then straight to the third floor to the Rothkos. On the third floor I had to walk past a few large paintings to get to Rothko’s Seagrams paintings. To the left was a very large canvas painted by the impressionist painter Claude Monet. This was one of his famous Water-lillies paintings of which he had made many. I knew Monet from reproductions; framed prints in offices, cheap posters for sale in the student center, the same cheap posters for sale in museum gift shops, Art History slide lectures, and just about every book on Modern painting. This painting was huge. Ten years later I have still only seen one larger painting. I never imagined that anything by Monet would have been so big. And it was beautiful. But all impressionist paintings are beautiful, that’s why people like them. Plus this was a representational painting. I was into abstraction. So, I walked around the corner to the Rothkos.
The Tate has installed the Seagrams paintings their own room, which I guess might be about twenty by thirty feet. This is a good size for them and creates a more intimate viewing experience separate from the museum traffic. I walked into the room. Awesome, I thought, This is awesome. Here were the paintings that I had waited years to see.
I took in the whole group at first. I sat on a bench and just looked around. Then I got up and walked around the room, up close to the work, looking into their surfaces. The brushstrokes were mostly worked over and smoothed. The layers of colors had the feeling of veils hanging in front of me. There is no illusion of any sort, the surface of the painting is obviously a surface. At the same time it seemed that there was more behind the surface. It felt deep. I backed up just far enough that a single painting took up my field of view. I took it in, I breathed it in and I tried my best to clear my mind.
Nothing happened. Or the things I expected to happen didn’t happen. Instead I had the experience of standing before large rectangles with blurry squares painted onto them. I couldn’t clear my mind. I tried for a while with these paintings that I had waited so long to see. I tried to make it work. I spent maybe forty-five minutes trying to make it work. I couldn’t forget the Monet.
So, a painting of a pond with water lilies floating on it called me back into the traffic of the museum corridor where it hung. I didn’t walk up to it to look at the surface. I sat on the bench in front of it. I didn’t look, I glowered at it. Why are you bothering me? Go away. I decided to sit in front of it until it until my mind got tired of it and let it go. I didn’t think about really looking at it and into it the way I had the Rothko. It’s a pond, mostly purple with a lot of greenish gold, yellow, and a few splotches of crimson defining the flowers. I sat in front of it for a very long time. The painting wouldn’t leave me alone. It wouldn’t let me go.
Slowly, it beat my stubborn opposition. I saw light bouncing off of the lilies and the surface of the pond. I saw the light move. Monet had observed this light and had painted it repeatedly combining the various instants to create an image of the passage of time. The painting surrounded me. Shifts in color and blurred edges made it difficult to focus. I stopped trying. Bold, candy colors vibrated in the space between me and the canvas. I saw changing patters of light and had a feeling somewhere in-between a distant sound and a low rumble.