On Rothko and the Portland Retrospective (Part 7): Tragedy and Miscellanea

Posted: February 26, 2012 in Experiences, On Beauty
Tags: , , , ,

Following my Sunday morning workout, I decided that I was only 10 minutes from the Portland Art Museum and that I owed myself another visit to the Rothko show. Today must have been “Steve’s friends go to the museum day” because I saw a number of people I knew. One of those people was at the show with her mother and her nephew. I was standing at the rear right corner of the gallery when I met them. (This is my favorite corner of the show, FWIW, because in one small area you can see the wonderfully bright and exciting “Yellow over Purple” from 1956 [owned by Paul Allen]; an untitled 1952 tempera in greens, orange, yellow, and pink [on loan from Christopher Rothko], and the huge purple and grey “Untitled” from 1963 [on loan from the National Gallery]). When I mentioned that this was my third visit to the show since it opened last weekend, my friend’s nephew asked me what I thought. I told him how much I adored the work of Rothko and he asked me what my favorite painting was. This was not a surprising question, but it was one that required me to stop and think.

The first answer is that I simply can’t pick a “favorite” because I love so many of them. No doubt my “favorite” Rothko will change depending on my mood at the time and how the emotional impact of the painting effects that mood. None the less, the question is one worth considering and my first answer was: “I love the sketches for the Seagram’s Murals and the 1963 purple and grey “untitled” one. I think those are my favorites.” Needless to say, that may not be true tomorrow. But today’s answer bothers me because it contradicts some of the things I said in an earlier post. I went on and on, a while back, about how Rothko’s paintings make me feel good. The fact is that some of the brightest among the color fields are often the ones I most love to sit with. Had my answer to my friend’s nephew been that statement, all would be well in the consistency department. But, it wasn’t; and, it isn’t. So, now what?

I’m not going to retract my comment about Rothko and “feeling good”. In the case of many of his paintings, that is a very true statement. They are emotionally very positive. But, it should not surprise us that a guy who went through severe bouts of depression and who ultimately ended his own life, has paintings that extend into much darker realms than exhilarating joy! He knew what he was doing when he made dark paintings. He even went so far as to tell John Fischer, editor of “Harper’s”, that the Seagram murals were intended to “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room”. (They did not – and he ultimately reacquired them to give them a more àpropos “sanctuary”.) My point is that they are NOT about “feeling good” and, what surprises me is not that he painted negative emotional canvases, but that I call some of those “my favorites”. THAT is what doesn’t make sense.

What does make sense to me, is that I’m powerfully moved by these paintings. So, I’ll certainly be willing to modify my statement about “feeling good” to more generally encompass the body of work. In that case, I’ll say that I like these paintings because they move me emotionally – irrespective of whether those emotions are positive or not. They are not all positive, in fact some are downright tragic. But they do all touch me deeply and I think I can learn a lot about myself from my reaction – even if that reaction is one of sorrow, despair, or disquietude.

After my original post about how good Rothko makes me feel, my friend Michael Newberry called me out on it. He told me that he agreed that some modern and post-modern paintings did, indeed, have strong emotional effects. His question to me, however, was essentially this: “Is emotion alone enough to make great art?” Michael’s answer is “no”. My personal answer is both “yes” and “no”. The pure fact that something is emotionally charged, does not make it great art. In fact, emotionalism (as we see in advertisement after advertisement and commercial film after commercial film) can very easily slip under the fence and into the realm of gratuitous psychological manipulation. So, “no”, in many cases emotion is not enough.

But there are other times (and to me personally Rothko’s work falls into this category) when a painting can evoke joy in a way that wants to make one strive for greatness, despair in a way that makes one understand our fallibility, silence that makes one emotionally release, or any number of other reactions from which we can learn about ourselves, our world, and our relationship to the act of living. In those cases, to me, emotion is sufficient. I could say that everyone is different because these reactions and the artwork’s value in their evocation is subjective. But I don’t believe that. Rather, I believe that the color, light, scale, and other attributes of a painting have objectively provable emotional connections. It’s not that they are subjective, but that WE are individuals. An individual who takes his work and its emotional content seriously can, in my hubble opinion, make great art. That is where I see the relationship between Rothko, his canvases, and my aesthetic.


A little kid is walking through the show with his mother. It turns out that one of Rothko’s color field paintings is actually representational! According to the kid “That one is a refrigerator full of ice cream!” Oy.

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