Posts Tagged ‘Portland Art Museum’

The Portland Rothko Retrospective will remain on view for only one more week. Today was very likely my last chance to visit it. I spent an hour there, this morning, and I want to make one last attempt to urge you to get there if you have not already done so. It is an important show and you owe it to yourself to see it.

Let me bring a few topics to conclusion.

From Figure to Ground

One of my earliest recommendations was that you walk the show chronologically. I urged you to observe the gradual dissolution of “figure” to the extent that, in the late paintings, nearly all that remains is “ground”. Along with this comes the gradual trend toward minimalism which culminates in the  low contrast and tonal darkness of the Seagram’s Murals and other late color field paintings. I also pointed out that, even in the early painting, the “ground” has many of the characteristics of the later panels. Christopher Rothko is the guy who originally told me to look for these patterns and I stand by my contention that Christopher’s guidelines are strongly supported. Here are a few examples that I noticed today.

First, in the following photo notice that there are 3 bands: heads, torsos, extremities. Ignore the foreground that contains those elements and you have a light grey, red, dark grey color field. Arguably, the colors are as important as the images. This, to me, seems like a good example of a transitional painting – moving from the importance of figure to the importance of ground. Blur your eyes and you tell me.

Yet closer to a pure color field is another painting from the 40s that has an even less important element of figure. It’s too early to be a color field painting but the panels are certainly the most important part of the painting.

And, right on the chronological cusp of Rothko’s solidification of the color field is this painting.

So many of the color transitions here have that blurred, indistinct, blended coloration between panels in the “classic” Rothko paintings. Even the brushstrokes here look like the brushwork of the Rothko we all know.

When one considers that these 3 paintings fall right smack in the middle of Rothko’s oeuvre, between the figure of the 20s and 30s and the panels of the 50s and 60’s it seems relatively clear that the transition from reliance on figure to the reliance on ground is chronologically smooth. By the late 60’s only ground remains.

Tragedy or Grandeur?

In one of my early posts I mentioned that I loved the emotion in Rothko’s paintings. I even said that they made me feel good. Later in this series I described how Rothko viewed his work as “tragic”. I have wrestled with this personal contradiction for the duration of this retrospective.

I have no issues with considering the Seagram’s murals tragic.I also certainly understand why the Rothko Chapel paintings so powerfully evoke the sublime. What I wrestle with is the relationship between “sublime” and “tragic”. The “sublime” in Rothko’s estimation can evoke fear, desperation, and even terror. But, try as I might, I don’t always feel that way around these paintings. In some of the very late paintings I can see and feel that. But, for me, many of the color field don’t elicit that reaction.  At least in some cases, I simply can’t stop myself from feeling GOOD around these pieces. Rothko may tell me that I misread them or that I don’t really get their power and intent. But, believe me, I get their power! I just don’t always get their “tragedy”.

I tend to feel like there is room for personal reaction in the experience of nonrepresentational art. I’m okay with the fact that I don’t always react the way I think Rothko would expect me to react. That’s cool. But I also feel like I have some insight into why I feel as I do. Reacting to the “sublime” can sometimes evoke what Abraham Joshua Heschel might call “grandeur”. I’ve been re-reading Heschel’s book “God in Search of Man” and I’ve really come to love his expression “Radical Amazement”. That is Heschel’s way of saying that our experience of the grandeur of the sublime is one of amazement. Seeing the beauty of nature, we react with amazement. Realizing the immensity of the universe, we react with amazement. To Heschel, this “amazement” is a core of spirituality. I’m starting to think that this “radical amazement” is really what I feel in a room full of Rothko’s. Sometime it’s amazing fear. Other times it’s amazing joy. In both cases, it’s a viable reaction to the sublime. So, I think I understand what Rothko wants me to experience. But I think that sometimes my reaction to the grandeur is just a little different that his expectation.

What I’m trying to say is that I understand how Rothko sees his work in the context of the sublime; but I see it (or at least some of it) more in the context of experiencing grandeur, irrespective of the specific emotion evoked by that grandeur. And…. I’m cool with that.


I’m not always right and I hope I’m not always wrong. But I love the work of Mark Rothko and he remains one of my favorite painters. If you want to pick apart all the mistakes I’ve made over the course of these 11 posts, I’m sure there is much to fuel your endeavor. What I want you to understand is that these posts aren’t about me being right or showing off my great knowledge about theory. These posts have been about sharing the way I wrestle with art, philosophy, beauty, culture, and experience. I’ve not been trying to teach you much. What I have done is to share my personal experiences with Rothko’s work and the Portland retrospective in the hope that you will get down to the museum and check it out. I really do hope you have learned something from this particular series of posts. More than that, however, I really do hope that, if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll get down to PAM this week before the show closes.

Thanks for playing!

Tonight I will be going to the Northwest Film Center to see a brand new 35mm print of one of my favorite films. I’ve spoken of it before, even in the context of Rothko. It is Antonioni’s film “Red Desert”. As it happens, the screening has absolutely nothing to do with the Rothko Retrospective at PAM. Perhaps that the film is showing in a theater at PAM is just serendipitous. But it has me again considering why I like both Rothko and Antonioni so much. I’d like to briefly share that and to consider one connection that I’ve never before seen discussed.

Let me quickly dispense with a couple well-known quotations.

First, Antonioni has described a Rothko painting with the words “It’s painted anxiety”. Many have disagreed with my proposition that there is a direct connection between Antonioni’s use of color, and Rothko’s. Yet, I still believe that, as colorists, both Rothko and Antonioni apply color effects as conveyors of pure emotion.

Second, I mentioned in an earlier post that, when Antonioni visited Rothko’s studio in New York, Antonioni is well-known to have said:  “Your paintings are like my films—they’re about nothing… with precision”. Personally, I don’t think that either artist’s ouerve concerns “nothing”; I do, however, think that they both concern the notion of “nothingness“. I won’t go into a big discussion of why I consider those two concepts as very different. Let me just say that I consider “nothingness” to be an embodiment of emotions and feelings like alienation, loneliness, silence, despair, isolation, and the like. The something, in both artists work is, in that sense, “nothingness“. But, at least to me, that is one big something!

Both of those Antonioni quotations are well-known and (perhaps) overused. So, let’s put them behind us and look at another thought I had today. It’s not a brilliant new contribution to art theory; it’s just a thought. But I’d like to share it – especially in light of the structure of the Rothko show.

You may recall that my recommendation for seeing the PAM Rothko show is to walk around the gallery clockwise, which is essentially chronological, and to do so twice. First you will see how Rothko’s work progressed from abstract but figurative to his mature color fields. The second time, I recommended noting a progression that Christopher Rothko explained to me: the ideal that, throughout his entire historical progression, Rothko maintained the idea of color panels (or color fields) but that, over time, the foreground gave way from figure to emotional essence. In other words, the seeds  of the mature color field paintings exist throughout the body of work. Let’s think about this as a painting career that progresses by gradually dispensing with foreground figure in order to deal solely with emotional atmosphere.

Now, if you are an Antonioni buff, as am I, you may already know where I’m going with this. If not, here we go. One of Antonioni’s most telling pieces of nonfictional writing is an essay called “Il Fatto e L’Immagine”, or, “The Fact and the Image”. In this essay, Antonioni discusses an example story of a drowned man; he describes his method of film-making, with regard to this story, as trying to  “remove the actual event from the scene and leave only the image“. That describes no film in the history of cinema better that Antonioni’s seminal 1960 film “L’Avventura: A girl goes on a boating trip and disappears, everyone looks for her, her boyfriend starts a relationship with her best friend, the end. Well, guess what? The disappearance happens in the first few minutes of the film and all the rest of the film is about its effect! – Just like the essay says it should be!

So here’s what I’ve been thinking. Rothko’s entire painting career exactly mirrors Antonioni’s aesthetic! Antonioni dispenses with facts for the purpose of dealing solely with atmosphere and emotion. Rothko dispenses with figure for the purpose of dealing solely with atmosphere and emotion!!! In both cases, light and color play fundamental emotive roles. But, more importantly, both artists dispensed with subject in order to allow the viewer to experience atmosphere. In both cases, perhaps there is great tragedy, but what we get to experience is the after-effect – pure emotion, pure atmosphere.

Maybe, just maybe, it is possible to consider the way Rothko’s paintings matured over time as “la figura e l’immagine“! At least that’s what I’m considering on a rainy Saturday afternoon before heading off to see a film about “nothingness”.

I need to take a minute to thank my friend, the composer Nicholas Chase, for explaining to me how Third Angle got SQ2 down to 4 hours. While I could see the computer display of the score from my seat, and I thought it was a great idea, I could not actually always read the score. That’s the downside of bad eyes. Nick could; and he told me that two basic performance elements affected the duration of the piece. One, they did not perform all the repeats; two they counted beats almost robotically for at least 2 hours and in doing so limited the possibility of the durational extension that comes from asynchronous counting.

I tend to agree with what Nick told me about the repeat issue when, in his email to me, he said: “Feldman added repeats to create proportion within a piece, they weren’t mindlessly added to generate scale. It’s a common mistake of groups unfamiliar with Feldman’s *methods* (even if they’re familiar with his music) to believe that the repeats are superficial and not an integral part of the whole work….” In other words, skipping repeats isn’t really true to Feldman’s intent. I agree with that but I stand behind my contention that, while not the most “true-to-Morty” SQ2 performance, it was a very strong performance of a very difficult work. Personally, I hope that Third Angle will ask for feedback from some of the Feldman experts in their audience and will take what they have learned and parlay it into a world-class performance. I think they have the capacity to do that and I hope this is not their last attempt.

Now, as for the second Feldman performance, I have almost nothing bad to say. What I do want to mention is that I don’t think that a 5 minute excerpt of a 4 – 6 hour piece is effective. I would rather have heard one of Feldman’s early short pieces than an excerpt of SQ2. We used to have these crazed intellectual discussions, when Phil Glass started writing short pieces like those on “Glasssworks”, about whether minimalism could work in short duration pieces. For 35 years my answer has been “no” and I think that contention applies to Morty’s long pieces too. The POINT of SQ2 is it’s SCALE. In 5 minutes, you can’t get that point. With that minor opinion stated, I will say that the “Rothko Chapel” concert was a stunning event. If the biggest complaint I have is that I got to hear 5 minutes of SQ2, you should be PROUD. THAT is how I hope that the Third Angle Ensemble, The Resonance Ensemble, and The Portland Art Museum all feel. It was a GREAT night.

I told you that the “Rothko Chapel” performance was unique and I promised to tell you why. Here it is:

Third Angle subtitled their concert “a conversation in words and music”. Their use of “words” was fabulous. Instead of simply performing 8 pieces of music, the concert couched all 8 works in the context of the 1966 – 67 Cage/Feldman “Radio Happenings” from WBAI New York. In between each piece of music they played excerpts of the radio broadcasts of Cage and Feldman in conversation. Then the music reflected some aspect of what was said.  For example, prior to performing Webern’s “Sechs Bagatellen” was an excerpt of Cage and Feldman discussing how they both first experienced that piece (so overwhelmed that they did not want to hear the remainder of the concert). That piece began the program and what followed were Cage’s “Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard” and “Imaginary Landscape #4” (that wacky piece for 12 radios); “Violist Piece #1” and part 1 of “Burdocks” by Christian Wolff; and three examples of Morty’s music – one five-minute excerpt from SQ2,” Projection 4″ for violin and vibes, and the glorious “Rothko Chapel”. All of the performances were well executed and, I have to say, “Rothko Chapel” was a fine performance that was true to Feldman’s aesthetic. The vocalists were wonderful. They all came from a group called the “Resonance Ensemble”, a new ensemble lead by Dr. Katherine FitzGibbon. This is a complete non sequitur but I kept listening to one of the sopranos with the déjà vu feeling that I was listening to Cathy Berberian. I’m telling you that because I love Berberian’s voice and I don’t lightly compare it to others. So, whichever of the 6 of you it was, you are a lovely vocalist and I think you should sing some Berio! 🙂

There was a visual aspect to the show as well. The room was laid out in such a way as to feel like a space similar to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Not dark and sacred but still comfortably and reverently enclosed. Bruce Guenther, the museum’s chief curator (who I have praised in the past) did the lighting design. Curtains surrounding the space displayed a variety of lighting with colors derived from many of those used in Rothko’s paintings before he turned to his final period of dark panels. The lighting was pleasing and the environment very conducive to experiencing the concert in a Rothko-laden context. Nice work Mr. Guenther!

Let me finish by simply saying that Third Angle (along with PAM and Resonance) deserve a very heartfelt congratulations. True, I came to hear Feldman and I don’t like Cage. But it was an exceptional program. Besides, I’ve been in Portland for nearly 23 years and I can’t remember a single performance of Christian Wolff. So, it’s clear that Third Angle is dedicated to bringing critical new music to Portland and that they are essentially the only ones who so effectively will take the risk.

Superb work and a wonderful augmentation of the Rothko show. John and Morty are no doubt smiling!

I’ve been in Portland now since 1989. I’m from California so Oregonians still don’t consider me to be a full-fledged Oregonian. My understanding is that the non-official rule for ex-Californians is 40-years (rumor has it that, from any other state, you need only wait 20 years, but who really knows). In any case, regardless of what the native Oregonians think, I personally consider myself an Oregonian and I’m proud of that. Couple that with my love for the work of Mark Rothko and I feel justifiably proud that Bruce Guenther and his team at the Portland Art Museum has brought about Harold Schnitzer’s dream of bringing a truly important Rothko exhibition to the museum where, in 1933, Mark Rothko had his very first museum show.

From that day in 1933 until this day in 2012 Rothko’s work has become recognized as among the most significant work of the “New York School” of Abstract Expressionism. For we who love art and who live in Portland, that period of time has brought the joy of seeing PAM mature from its humble beginnings to a well-respected institution – one capable of acquiring Clement Greenberg’s complete collection and one worthy of hosting a world-class Rothko show. In my opinion, this transformation is very directly attributable to Mr. Guenther and his recognition that great rewards only come with the taking of financial risk. It costs many millions of dollars to create a world-class institution and Mr. Guenther had the guts to do just that. It is that institution, and Mr. Guenther’s cultivation of significant financial resources, that has made this show possible. I’m sure that Mr. Guenther does not have any idea who I am; but after walking the Rothko show, both early in the day on an uncrowded Saturday morning and midday on a packed Sunday before Christopher Rothko’s lecture, I want to thank him from the very depths of my soul for his dedication to both the cause of modern art, and to the more specific cause of Mark Rothko!

Of course, Rothko is considered part of the New York School and lived most of his life in New York. So we need to ask: “Why does Portland, Oregon claim Mark Rothko as OUR native son?” The answer is simple. Rothko (then Marcus Rothkowitz) came to Portland in 1913, at the age of ten. He may be a New York painter, but he is a Lincoln High School graduate. When he took off for Yale, he did so with his good friend Aaron Director, one of the truly important founders of the Portland we know today. I had the opportunity to spend yesterday afternoon with a large group of Rothko’s relatives and, judging from the number of Rothkowitz people who still live here, he may have gone off to become a New Yorker, but the Portland Rothkowitz clan abounds. So, in my opinion, Portland has every right to lay claim to OUR Rothko!

So, let’s talk about the show. First, it’s important to remember that this is a retrospective. It’s express intent is to illustrate the complete history of Rothko’s endeavors and to show the ways in which Rothko’s work matured into the “color field” paintings we most readily associate with him. Because I love those last 20-ish years of paintings so deeply, I was drawn to do what I urge you all NOT to do. I walked into the gallery and turned right toward the later work and only then returned to the earlier paintings. If you want to see color field paintings, that’s fine. But, if you want to understand Rothko, DON’T do that; instead turn left.

If you turn to your left and walk the show clockwise you will enjoy a variety of surprises. You see, of the 44 paintings in the show, only 15 of them are the “classic” color field paintings. Twenty-nine paintings are a combination of figurative paintings from 1926 through about 1937, semi-surrealist paintings through about 1945, and pre-color field abstractions from 1946 through about 1948. The earliest of the color field paintings is the 90″x66″ orange, yellow, and white “panel” called “No. 8″ from 1949. The other 14 of these paintings carry on through 1969 with the latest being the 54″x68” grey and black “Untitled” from 1969.

Mr. Guenther and his team did a fabulous job of assembling the selection of work. Many of the paintings are on loan from The National Gallery in Washington. Several are from private collections, including one owned by Paul Allen. And a surprising number are from the personal collections of Rothko’s son, Christopher Rothko, and his daughter, Kate Rothko Prizel. This is, by no means, the largest Rothko retrospective exhibition. It is also not the biggest collection of color field paintings. But, the show is extremely effective, easy to understand, well displayed, and very well curated. It is a very beautiful show, meets an important educational need, and is among the Pacific Northwest’s most important shows of the 21st century.

If there is anything to complain about, those complaints are minor and are far offset by the positive aspects. First, I don’t know why, but I find it sort of humorous that it is acceptable to photograph (without flash!) every one of the paintings but one. For some reason Paul Allen withheld approval to have his one piece photographed. Considering that the Rothko children had no issue with their personal works being photographed, I don’t know what Mr. Allen’s issue is. I don’t know why I find that annoying because that has absolutely nothing to do with the show. So, I suppose I can’t count it as a complaint.

There are, however, two items worth mention.

First, I think that the show is just a tad too brightly lit. Especially when it comes to viewing the three Seagram Mural sketches from 1958 and 59 and “Untitled” from 1963, I get the feeling that Rothko would have liked the lighting more subdued. Had they been lit differently, the audience would have had a chance to experience some of what one feels upon entering a space like Rothko Chapel. You miss that experience in this lighting. Then again, that probably is not practical with this particular gallery layout and, on the upside,  it’s easier to see the subtlety in color shifts the way that PAM has chosen to light them. So, it’s not a bad choice. Just a choice.

Second, again just a personal opinion, I would have liked to see 3 or 4 color field paintings hung in very close proximity in a confined space. Many years ago I saw the 3 Rothko paintings that Duncan Philips owned, hung in the original gallery space that Rothko specified for the Philips Collection in Washington DC. That was a very small space and, because of that, the paintings were almost overwhelming. It would have been nice if Portland viewers could have the experience that I first had; sitting alone in that small room in DC with 3 overwhelmingly emotional “classics”. But, as with my opinion about lighting, (a) that might not have made for a practical gallery layout (even the Philips Collection Rothko’s are now hung differently), and (b) I have no question in my mind that this was considered without me having to bring it up. It’s a minor issue, is far offset by positives, and does not detract from the synergy of the show.

Overall, I must say that this show exceeded my expectations. It is simply beautiful. Because I’m a color field freak, I made a bad choice for a first walk-through and I really do encourage everyone to “turn left and walk clockwise”. When I returned on Sunday, to walk the show with my wife, we went chronologically clockwise and I think we learned a lot from doing that. I’ll be back many more times before the show closes – that I guarantee.

I’ll leave you with one last suggestion. If you really want to learn as much as possible from a single visit to this show, do this: Walk the show clockwise; study the color field paintings; then walk the first 29 paintings again and try to look for similarities in color palette and the use of foreground/background distinctions. I will give credit where due and will tell you that I learned this from Christopher Rothko, I did not figure it out myself. But, if you look back at the earlier paintings, after studying the color fields, you WILL find that, even as early as his earliest work, Rothko’s philosophy of art is consistent and is continuously moving toward that which reaches full expression in his last 20 years of classic paintings.

With that said, I leave you to enjoy the show – it will be worth every moment of your time!