It’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut. You think, “I despise this (insert name, place, activity, food, show, music here). I’ve always hated it and I know I’ll continue to hate it.” Then – surprise, surprise – something happens and you find you actually may like whatever it is that you avowed you hated.
That life lesson was reinforced recently when I came face-to-face with art work by Mark Rothko. Born in 1903, Rothko and his family emigrated from Russia to Portland, OR when he was a boy. The artist had varied interests, including music, literature and theater; in fact, he described his paintings as “drama.” Rothko continued to refine his work and earned his first important solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961. However, Rothko’s health began declining later that decade and he committed suicide in 1970.
I first saw Rothko’s work at the Rothko Chapel, which is part of the Menil Collection in Houston. The chapel’s huge paintings are sobering blocks of dark color made by combining red and black; at the time, I really wasn’t drawn to them and questioned whether the artist needed any skill to create them.
It turns out that my friend, Mara, felt the same way after going on a chapel tour that included the Rothko Chapel as well as two other chapels with more “traditional” and colorful artwork. “I thought the Rothko paintings were depressing and I wasn’t enamored with them,” she said. “I didn’t get the point.” In fact, both Mara and I wondered whether the paintings were a reflection of his depressed state prior to his suicide.
Those few paintings colored both of our perspectives when we thought about learning more about Rothko and his work. “I knew he was a Russian émigré. I knew he was an abstract artist and I knew that he committed suicide,” she said. “I didn’t really pursue him. I just didn’t think I’d like his work.”
Then the Museum of Fine Arts Houston put together a retrospective of Rothko’s work that started getting great reviews. The advertisements with brightly colored paintings made both Mara and me feel like we needed to re-examine our views.
The exhibit was laid out in chronological order, showing Rothko’s technique in depicting forms in his early work. That proved to both of us that he had the skill set. “He studied and he was about being an artist,” Mara said.
Rothko’s work began to evolve and became spare as he focused on paring away figures in order to reach the essence of each painting. “So you see in his paintings fewer and fewer distinct forms – fewer people and more squares of color,” Mara said. “In that square of color, he also changes the shading.”
The exhibit provided context to the paintings that we initially dissed. One of the MFAH descriptions included comments by Rothko’s son, who said his father didn’t want the paintings in the Rothko Chapel to distract visitors from their thoughts. Instead, he wanted viewers to take a contemplative stance when viewing the Rothko Chapel paintings. “That was an interesting take on what I originally had thought was a big, depressing, ugly thing,” Mara said.
The MFAH retrospective also offered some background into Rothko’s suicide. It turns out that he was suffering from heart issues and could no longer paint. “He was an artist who couldn’t work anymore,” Mara said.
That exhibit sparked a reevaluation of preconceptions – and taking a different perspective when looking at art and life. “It’s a matter of deciding to reconsider your opinion – and my opinion was based on two paintings. He lived 70-80 years so there had to be more to him,” Mara said, adding that she also took into account a conversation she recently had with another contemporary artist when she was visiting the MFAH exhibit. “It doesn’t matter if I like it or I don’t; the question is whether I can appreciate that they were trying to say something. Just be open to what this person has to say.”
Primary Resources for This Post:
MarkRothko.org. (ND). Mark Rothko Biography.