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
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 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
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
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
Read Charlie Dickinson's
story collection, The Cat
at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable
.epub (most other readers)
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