Thursday, December 20, 2012

How I Learned to Love Paintings of Giant Rectangles

I waited in line for a Mark Rothko exhibit outside of the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris. It was March and lightly raining. I dozed leaning against the wall of the building, not excited about the prospects of seeing the work of one of the best abstract expressionists. I went to the exhibit out of feelings of obligation and an obnoxious desire not to like the work in that acclaimed show. It was 1999, I was 21 years old and very pleased with myself.
No.1 (Royal Red and Blue)
Photo: Art in America
I first saw a Rothko painting in my high school art history book where it was poorly represented in a tiny photograph. I was outraged when I saw it that a colored rectangle would make it into the same book as Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” I held fast to a dislike of all abstract expressionism until I began actually seeing examples of it in person.

The show was arranged chronologically and I was surprised to see Rothko’s subway paintings which were moody and expressionistic like a mixture of Kirchner and Munch. I immediately latched onto these works because at the time I was trying in vain to create something like them.

Entrance to Subway (Subway Scene)
1938, Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel
Photo: National Gallery of Art
The biggest surprise of the show for me was when I turned a corner and was faced with one of Rothko’s signature giant abstractions. It was similar to the work I had dismissed in my art history book, but confronted with this overwhelming benevolent force of a painting in person, I was awestruck.

I will make a note here that this exhibit is also where I gained an appreciation for curation and its role in the art world. The choice of introducing the viewer to Rothko through the earlier works and then allowing a famous, breathtaking work to ambush the visitor around a corner was brilliant. Clearly, as I am still thinking about it today 13 years later.

As I walked from canvas to canvas, I felt like I was watching the artist’s life unfold through his work. I saw the joy and pain that we all experience. I even became emotional as I saw the dark paintings he made late in life. The viewer did not have to read the placards to know that the artist was despairing and near the end of his journey.

 I will not spend too much time describing the paintings because they must be experienced. Reading about them prior to seeing them did not move me to appreciate them and my description will not move you. I will say that the difference between a Rothko painting and a simple rectangle of color is the difference between a mannequin and a human being.

That chilly Spring morning in Paris changed me. I learned that before I dismiss a work of art out of a book, I should take a look at it and see what all the fuss is about. In the years after that show I became a fan of the abstract expressionists. During my time living in New York, I visited the museums often to sit in front of the work of painters that I once rejected out of ignorance; Pollock, Kline, Motherwell and the American artist I met in Paris, Mark Rothko.