I can’t recall the first time seeing a Rothko painting. I’m pretty sure I didn’t like it whichever one it was. I just didn’t get Rothko’s work at all. I had different opinions about art back then, but I’ll get into that later.
It wasn’t until Charlotte and I went to Jackson, MS for the When Modern Was Contemporary exhibit at The Mississippi Museum of Art that I drastically changed my mind about Rothko’s work.
My main goal was to see the Jackson Pollock painting on display, since Pollock was the first painter that inspired me to paint. That was an amazing painting to see and I felt grateful seeing it. In Pollock’s work I can see all of time being laid out in front of us and everything is happening at once.
The show also had a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, which Charlotte really loved. There were paintings by Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jacob Lawrence, Forrest Bess and each one had its own universe within it. Through our wonder and joy we were granted a small glimpse into the magic of the muse. I didn’t realize this magic for a long time, but later came to believe that art is magic and I saw it first hand.
We had a fun time imagining what the artists were thinking about when they painted such works. Or what it takes to wrangle enough focus and have enough talent to paint reality, the way that they saw it.
It was one amazing painting after another. I felt like I was in another world. We spent hours in there just soaking up the vibes, visiting almost all the paintings more than once.
In the past I tended to categorize art in my mind. The categories were basic: Good, bad, I like that, and hmm interesting was about all I had. After that show my categories broke away and I saw not just style and color, but emotional depth within the universe of a painting or drawing. I began to see into paintings. My mind was stretched out like a canvas and new visions, dreams and ideas covered it like a warm wave.
The Rothko painting we saw in Jackson (Old Gold Over White, 1956), was in the last room of the exhibit so it was one of the last paintings we saw. Charlotte and I had been through a whirlwind of joy discovering all this art for ourselves, so our minds were open and we could appreciate any and every painting.
Looking at the Rothko painting I could somehow see into his mind and soul. He wasn’t just squaring three colors in an obsessed, absurd way, oh no, he was painting entire scenes that encapsulate human emotions. In his work I see sunsets, desolate landscapes, mountain vistas. He stuck to his vision and I have to give him credit for that.
Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia in 1903 and was one of the leading Abstract Expressionists of his day. I came to appreciate Rothko’s art even more once I looked into his methods and thought process.
He said, “A painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience” and that “if you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
Thinking like this helped me realize that a painting isn’t just a painting, but contains all of life. If we try to put our ideas and beliefs onto paintings then nothing is original and becomes stale. Art is more enjoyable if we remove our notions and know there is another universe where art exists and we’re blessed enough to experience it.