Episode 24: Meditations on Mark Rothko
There’s a scene in Pretty Woman that always really bugged me. Vivian and Edward are sitting in the box at the opera, making cute with the opera glasses and Vivian’s inexperience when it comes to high-class society, and right before the lights go down, Edward mansplains this: people have very strong reactions when it comes to opera, they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they’ll always love it. If they don't, maybe they can learn to appreciate it, but the music will never become a part of their soul.
I don't know about you, but that seems like an awful lot of pressure to put on a neophyte about to experience something potentially emotionally powerful for the first time. And it raised the stakes considerably for me, an impressionable nine-year-old who hadn’t been to the opera yet (and yes, I was watching Pretty Woman as a nine-year-old, take it up with my parents). I was determined to love opera the first time I saw it, because after all, Richard Gere said that my soul was at stake. And then I didn’t, really. And I felt doomed to just “appreciate” it, when I knew that there was something deeper there, that was missing out on.
Chances are, you came to this episode on Mark Rothko because you love him. You really, deeply love him. Or, you came because you see people loving him like that, and you don’t really get it. And it’s not that you don’t want to; on the contrary, you just look around at people looking intently at these iconic colors dissolving into one another, and dissolving into tears themselves, and you want in. All this fuss must be about something, and why isn’t it speaking to you the same way? Are you just surrounded by emotional ambulance chasers making much melodramatic ado of what my skeptic friend once described as “Rothko bunk”? And to you I say this, which I truly believe: if you’re not moved by Mark Rothko, if you don't experience something powerful, yet compassionate, something gentle, yet transcendent, don’t fret that he’ll never become a part of your soul. You just haven’t met the right Rothko yet.
Every Mark Rothko painting is different. Each one plays with color in a different way, and we’ve already talked about how powerfully colors can speak to us. And like people, each painting has different nuances, different personalities. And we therefore have different relationships with them; like people, there are some we’re just more comfortable being around than others. People just have their own Rothko. They connect to it; they feel a kind of intimacy. And it’s why you’ll hear people anthropomorphize these paintings, talking about individual ones like old friends they come back and visit, making sure it’s doing okay, that it’s been hung on the wall with care, with enough room to stretch out, to breathe.
So we know that it’s possible to have a strong reaction to a Mark Rothko painting. Boy, do we know that. But how did we get there? And how do we get there? When does this interaction between a visitor and a canvas become this transcendent experience?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. Besides the painting itself, there are actually only two things that you need to experience a Rothko to its fullest, neither of which I can actually provide for you right now: a chair, and silence. The chair part might take you back to episode 10, when we first looked at abstraction in the form of Piet Mondrian. We talked about how, to fully appreciate abstraction, you need time and a comfy spot in front of the painting to sit with it, to experience it. And at the risk of repeating myself, abstract painting is entirely about that experience, about giving yourself over to its lack of representation and focusing instead on how that nothingness, that lack of anything narratively specific to hang your hat on, illuminates the pulsing hues, or the dancing spatter of a Jackson Pollock, or, here, the gentle wash of color into color. Rothko perhaps put it best himself when he said that “a painting is not a picture of an experience, it is the experience.” And when we look at, for example his no. 1 from 1961, an immense purple, black, and red canvas, the act of looking does actually become an experience of transformation. The colors change in front of your eyes. We see a black square contrasting with the purple, but if I told you that black was actually dark green, you wouldn’t see it right away. It would take a bit of time for your eye to adjust and see the quiet green vibrancy slowly underscoring the black. One color would recede into another, what seemed to be the background is pushed forward, gently, and you lose all visual sense of what was painted first, and what was painted last. And it becomes hard to imagine that these colors were ever just sitting in tubes, or on a palette. Now, they just seem primal.
This brand of abstraction came of age in New York in the 1940s and 50s. Rothko is held up, alongside Jackson Pollock, as a prime example of Abstract Expressionism, and it’s true that the abstraction part is where we benefit most from the chair. But it’s clear that we’re not dealing with the rigid, emotionless lines of a Mondrian. With enough time, a Mondrian vibrates and hums, but it doesn’t bring anyone to tears. A Mondrian painting doesn’t tell us anything about Mondrian directly, other than his aversion to emotion, that is, human weakness. But when we looked at Pollock in episode 12, we saw what happens when the objectivity of abstraction is co-opted by emotion, by an artist who is exquisitely, often painfully, present. And we can feel his presence in every expressionist drip and fling of his arm, or we can feel it in other ways. This is where Abstract Expressionism itself splits into various avenues. Pollock champions what is known as action painting, which, given what you already know about him, is fairly self-explanatory. And Rothko, though he resisted categorizing his work so neatly, championed what art historians describe as color field painting. There is as much emotion humming under the surface of these quiet colors as we feel when we dance along to an aggressive Pollock spatter, but it requires a different kind of empathic interaction to unlock it.
And this is where we need the silence. Because this slow dissolve, this subtle pulsing, this wash of color, this depth, pulls your eye into a deeply gentle, meditative experience. This kind of active, quiet focus, like walking the path of a labyrinth, or tracing the circles in a Japanese rock garden, allows you to lose yourself, but in a safe, cradling space. When you walk up close to one of his paintings, Rothko says, “you are in it. It isn’t something you command.” He was adamant that his paintings needed to be viewed at a maximum of 18 inches away. And yet, though you’re submerged, enveloped, you’re not swallowed. You’re just close enough to get past the borders, to see the colors illuminate each other and placidly dissolve from one to the other, which can make an abrupt paint drop or errant brushstroke feel so jarring. He would let the odd drip stay where it was; it’s like he knew that the only thing more distracting than mistakes are the absence of them. And his paintings are best seen in the ever-changing, ephemeral breaths of natural light, which, like we saw with Monet, not only alter the emotional quality of colors, but their hierarchy too – what’s foreground and what’s background. You can never tell, for certain, which color square was painted first, and that’s a surprisingly effective technique to keep your eye active, even as the rest of you is quieted into stillness.
And this stillness can be an enormously powerful thing. It’s what you came for. The quiet gives you compassionate permission to unclench. You didn’t realize how much energy you spent keeping your eye in focus at all times until you’re given permission to slacken it. And that’s when the Magic Eye sailboat becomes visible. There’s a let-down, a release, an opening up. There’s a heightened awareness of your surroundings, of the physical landscape. Of the emotional landscape. Of your own thoughts. And it can leave you incredibly vulnerable. Some friends have described it as the inexplicable sobs that rise up during shavasana in yoga, or during meditation, or following any kind of physical release. And it makes you more aware of how spiritual an experience meditation can be, why so many Eastern religions deliberately – and Western ones a little more accidentally – integrate it into religious practice. Rothko himself had a complicated relationship to religion. He was born into a family of Russian Jewish intellectuals in 1903, absorbed the vitriol directed at Jews as he grew up, and made a conscious decision to move away from organized religion, and to instead reach a higher spiritual power through the meditative aspects of color in his work.
Color, he believed, is primal, elemental, pure unconscious emotional resonance and response. If you ask a child what art is and instead of colors they say “drawing”, he argues that it’s too late, they’re already too academic. And yet writes, “if you say you are moved only by the color relationships in my paintings, you miss the point.” Colors are tools. They act as the building blocks of spirituality. And our subjective experiencing of them, both their own emotional characteristics, i.e. how we feel in our gut when we see red, or blue, and the waking meditative trance that we fall into when we experience red washing into blue, is, taken together, what creates this catharsis not unlike religious transcendence. And he knows it’s a deeply personal thing – the only time an art historian will ever give you permission to completely indulge your own interpretive experience of a work of art is in front of a Mark Rothko. He allows us to create our own relationships with the emotional reactions that surface from looking at his paintings, and to consequently fill our own personal cathedrals to the rafters. “If there is a God,” my friend Claire once wrote, “he is looking back at me kindly from the center of a Rothko square.”
And this profound, spiritual use of color makes it very difficult to describe a Rothko painting without getting into poetic or associative terms. We can look at No. 1 from 1961 and put it plainly: it’s rectangles of greenish black and purple and red. But it’s not just that. It’s being a kid and gently pushing your fingers against your closed eyelids to watch the colors swirl and churn, not knowing which will come next. It’s also what came before God separated light and dark in the opening lines of Genesis. It’s, as the songwriter Dar Williams put it, a blue that speaks so full it’s like a beauty one can barely stand. It’s a green like the peace in your heart sometimes. It’s the luminescent light behind the horizon before the sun rises. It’s the depth of black when your eye adjusts to darkness.
And to follow the trajectory of Mark Rothko’s work, and his life, is you adjust your eye to darkness. “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend,” Rothko once wrote. “That one day the black will swallow the red.” Already prone to depression, he grew more disaffected and withdrawn as his professional star rose – understandably, this idea of individual empathic transcendence didn’t translate into having panels commissioned to hang in a restaurant, to the kind of mass appeal where everyone is drawn to the same thing, and to fulfilling the obligations of celebrity. You can see his paintings darken slowly throughout his career, culminating in black on black as he neared the end of his life which ended in suicide at the age of 66. And it becomes almost impossible to disassociate the emotional feelings that are roused in you from the paintings from this knowledge of his personal life. You can’t know that a suicidal painter is producing black canvases and not see his pain in every brushstroke. And especially when his desire for your empathy was so much the point. “The progression of a painter’s work,” he wrote, “will be toward clarity, toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer…to achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.”
He wanted you to feel deeply, and he also wanted you to deeply feel what he was feeling. “The people who weep before my pictures,” he famously wrote, “are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.” He says this knowing full well that, despite the shared tears, your religious experience is your own, as is his, even as he provides you with the tools to get there. But there’s something else, too. He wanted your religious vulnerability to open itself up to him. To provide a sense of compassionate kinship, from one feeling person to another. Communicating emotion, sharing experiences of grief and of ecstasy, was deeply important to Rothko. He just wanted to be understood.
And…this nakedness, this intimacy, can be unnerving. And this is a risk we take by approaching a Rothko—even a Rothko we’ve already befriended—equipped with the silence and the chair, and giving ourselves over to vulnerability, and to ours. It can be calming, it can be lovely, and it can also be really hard. For paintings that appear so gentle, their size and depth can be overwhelming. And that’s when you can also give yourself permission: to hang it up for the day. You are allowed to turn away from someone else’s darkness sometimes. Things don’t always have to exist at emotional frequencies this intense, and it’s okay if some days you’re just not in the mood. It can be a lot.
And it’s also okay to just appreciate the colors without worrying about missing the point, or that they won’t become a part of your soul. A Mark Rothko painting is not a test to see how deep you are. It’s just not that calculating. And despite the deference with which we treat it, it’s not actually a person who can reject you. It's a beautiful tool, and it’s a reminder: to take a little time to quiet your mind, to open yourself up to what surfaces from stillness. It's a reminder that the deepest communication that is shared with others is born from vulnerability. And if it doesn’t happen today, or tomorrow, or with this Rothko, or that, take heart. If you find yourself open, in any way, to a beautiful experience, then you’ve already gotten there.
Special thanks to Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi and Ellie Avishai, and to the intrepid museum goers at the museum of fine arts, Boston. For more information, head over to the LonelyPalette.com, or follow us on Twitter @lonelypalette, and Instagram @thelonelypalette. And if you like the show, please share it with the world by leaving a rating and review on Apple Podcasts.
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