Maybe you have noticed two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say.”~~Mark Rothko, 1953
Explaining “why” I love Mark Rothko’s work is not an easy question to answer. Luckily I am not alone in finding this question challenging; his works always held a meditative quality for me that’s hard to describe, I just enjoy the feeling I get from his work. Ironically enough, I was first drawn to Rothko for the vibrancy of his colors. I think this was due in part to the fact that I was first introduced to Rothko’s No. 14 at SF MOMA. In 2002 I went to the Rothko retrospective at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center,and there I had more of a transformative view of his paintings. Taken as a group, his works proffer a completely different energy and experience that is indescribable.
I recently attended a panel discussion at MOCA where lead gallery educator Bonnie Matthews Porter, curator Alma Ruiz and conservator Tanya Thompson tackle questions about Rothko’s artistic process, the viewer experience and the conservation of his work. This discussion was part MOCA’s week-long celebration of Mark Rothko (as part of the Panza Collection), which had a 3 year tenure on view on Grand Ave. It is currently being decommissioned for conservation and sadly the Panza Rothkos will not be on view for a year.
Two interesting revelations came out during that discussion that forced me to think about Rothko in a different light. The first was that Rothko was very particular about how his works were to be shown (low light, beige walls, optimal viewing distance of 18 inches). His process included meticulous layering that renders his signature floating rectangles as glowing spheres. When you view his work in his prescribed conditions their glow and energy is amplified (these particular conditions were replicated at the 2002 PDC show, but at the time I didn’t realize all of this, I just knew I loved it). The second revelation deals with color. Rothko felt that viewers who are drawn to his work based solely on color were missing the point. I take some umbrage to this, considering the strength and use of color in his work are hallmarks; even his own titles distill his work into simple color relationships.
Despite my issue with the relevance of color play, Rothko’s point was more about the viewer’s experience with his paintings vs their understanding of what the painting may or may not convey.
“To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as s stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However if you paint the larger picture you are in it. It isn’t something you command.” ~~Mark Rothko, Reprinted from a 1951 symposium at MOMA.
On Monday I had one last opportunity to view the Rothkos before they were taken down and luckily I had the gallery to myself for an extended period of time to closely analyze brush strokes and concentrate on what I “felt” while being immersed in these magnificent works. The result was quite amazing. In “No. 310”, 1959, when viewed up close there is a chaotic, manic, urgent energy conveyed both the color and in brush strokes. It’s a very active, dynamic piece, that is not apparent when viewed from a distance.
By contrast “Black on Dark Sienna”, 1960 is an intimidating, foreboding piece with an uneasiness that feels like a calm before the storm. Again, it is a feeling that is particularly present when the piece is viewed up close.
I was so happy to have had a few opportunities to view these works before their extended leave. In the meantime the museum will cycle in a couple of other Rothkos from their collection, so it will be nice to get a refresh on some of his work.