Portland currently has a Mark Rothko retrospective. This is fitting because after his family emigrated from Russia, Rothko grew up in Portland, graduating from Lincoln High School, before going back East to New York City to pursue his artistic career.
The retrospective exhibits forty-five works from his ouvre, showing the artist's evolution into a major American Abstract painter of the Twentieth Century.
Although I'm simply a "lay" observer, I quickly noticed paintings from the 20s and 30s were muted--colors from a palette one associates with Hopper and the Depression Era. Still, the early paintings had Rothko's characteristic diffuse, soft-focus edges.
The figurative realism of the early Depression Era works gives way to abstraction--a painting or two shows the influence of Kandinsky--in the 40s.
Surprisingly, paintings from the 50s show a brighter color palette. Post-war prosperity, married life, pride of fatherhood, career success--all must've summoned optimistic colors for a decade or so.
But with paintings that followed in the 60s, Rothko will be remembered. The color palette dims and painting composition often defaults to two stacked blocks of color, What to make of it?
If anything, I felt oddly Rothko wanted these paintings to paint themselves and removed traces of the artist. Brush strokes are gone; color appears to bleed out from the canvas itself. Abstraction boils out any "meaning," leaving only what Rothko once said was an emotion.
One of the more telling things, however, about these latter paintings is there is no signature of the artist. Sure, Rothko's style was his signature, but certainly, another conscious effort to remove any trace of ego.
Alas, the ne plus ultra example of Rothko's achievement, in my opinion, is not in Portland. It's in Houston, inside the Rothko Chapel, one building in the Menil Museum complex.
I've sat inside the Rothko Chapel. Fourteen paintings--among his last--hang from its walls.
Each painting is shades of black and purplish-black--and yet, an incredible calm comes over their viewer, unavoidably. These fourteen paintings bring us face to face with a meditative experience essential to any chapel visit. For we stare directly--without intervention of the artist--at the paintings that painted themselves and show what the Buddhist call sunyata, or emptiness.
These ultimate Rothko paintings reveal something wordless, and yet certain, to the viewer as surely as the famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji. As Rothko said, "Silence is so accurate."
Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:
.epub (most other readers)
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