On Being Rothko

Seeing a large color-field painting as a teen I was incredulous at the notion that “this is art”. From there to here and now, re-creating one of those luminous monsters, has been quite a trip—literally and figuratively.

In the early 80’s there was an exhibit of Mark Rothko’s Works on Paper at the Portland Art Museum.  Determined to discover why these bands of tone and color mattered, I headed to the museum multiple times.

The first visit was one of stopping to read all the reading that museums typically provide, looking at an early watercolor of Mt. Hood from the Rose Garden and puzzling over some tempera sketches for the Harvard murals–all an academic struggle to gain insight.  Then I rounded the corner and fell into a room filled with black and gray rectangular images that literally made my knees weak.  That is not an exaggeration.  The impact, for whatever retinal, biochemical, or recall reason, was such that I HAD to sit down.  It was remarkable.  It was as if a video instantly flashed before me reflecting the history of art, or the history of man, or the depth of the spiritual, or perhaps my own dark soul, or my Pollyanna sense of optimism—I can’t explain it, but it was all-encompassing. I revisited the exhibit several times and every time sitting in that room was like taking a drug.

Many years of books and exhibits from NYC and DC to London and Rome  and miscellaneous individual paintings to the Rothko Chapel in Houston my understanding and appreciation of the work of Mark Rothko continues t0 deepen. At the same time his work brings up many questions about art, its meaning, its creators, philosophy, how color, light and form function on a 2-d surface, etc. And as I reproduce his work for the upcoming Portland Center Stage production of the Play by Jonathan Logan, “Red”, those questions continually run through my mind.  But in the end, it is simply the layers of those saturated colors creating velvety surfaces that are somehow transformative.

This is where he and I meet.  Whatever our commonalities of geographic ancestry and the impact of life in Portland, love of the theater, our similar politics (even naming our daughters the same name), they are coincidence.  I believe we share a level of thrill when colors meet, overlap and vibrate. Finding just the right viscosity is compelling.  I itch to get back to them after a break.  There’s no doubt he will continue to influence my work in an even bigger way. (It may be time for form to dissolve again.)

This week and next we will be working on the pile of pieces in progress.  Suggestion:  find an artist with whom you really resonate.  Look at one thing—one relationship, one technique, one passage that you find thrilling.  Copy what that artist does on one or two areas of your paintings as you work to resolve them. I hope you have as much fun as I’m having.

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