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How to view a Rothko?

posted by Karen McKevitt on Fri, Mar 16, 2012
in General theatre talk , Our shows

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On the occasion of Red's first performance tonight, our Literary Associate Julie McCormick offers some thoughts on viewing Rothko's work:

One thing that postmodernism taught us (along with the fact that it’s possible to wear lobster claw shoes and meat dresses in public) is that the conditions in which we encounter something — whether it is a person, an idea, or a work of art — are as important to our understanding of the subject as the subject itself. Watching a film in a darkened theater is a drastically different experience than watching the same movie on your i-whatever or on the treadmill at the gym. A play performed in 2,000-seat proscenium with a well-curated program on your lap can evoke an entirely different response from the same play performed in a black box theatre, or as a site-specific work in some edgy warehouse. The same goes for a painting. How do you first approach it? Is it crowded, salon style, on a wall with dozens of other pieces of every shape, size, and genre? Or does it command an entire wall, like the Mona Lisa? What else can you see? Other paintings, sculptures, a view of the outdoors?

Rothko was excruciatingly specific in how his work was to be displayed, giving galleries headaches and detailed instructions on how high off the ground his paintings needed to go and how much space there had to be in between his canvases and those belonging to other artists. This is at least in part because Rothko viewed his works less as paintings and more as experiences. If a viewer was preoccupied with the painting as a painting, they would miss the deeper spiritual essence the artist sought to convey.

Some concerns, such as the amount of light in a gallery, are practical as well as aesthetic. Works on paper like watercolors, pen-and-ink sketches, and prints are usually placed in dimly lit rooms to protect the sensitive paper and ink. Art museums often have large collections of these fragile works that they rotate periodically so that no one piece gets too much exposure. (A little known fact: these print collections are often available to the public via appointment.) Paints are made of a variety of organic and inorganic substances that decay over time. Many of the pigments that painters use are extremely volatile, changing and fading over time. Van Gogh’s famous Bedroom in Arles, for example, with its iconic blue walls, was actually most likely a lilac color at the time it was painted. True to his agenda of elevating content over form, Rothko was not particularly concerned with the physical integrity of his canvases. He knocked together low-quality wood in rickety frames, haphazardly stapled on canvas, and smeared them with a noxious witches’ brew of glue, egg yolks, pigments, and other mysterious ingredients. Much to the consternation of art conservationists, many of his paintings have already started to decay and must be kept in dark storage. What to do with paintings that have altered over time is a question that won’t be answered anytime soon, but some have come up with intriguing alternatives.

If you really want to look at a Rothko, ignore the poster hanging over the cooler at work or the thumbnail on Google. Head over to SFMOMA and go up to the second floor. Rothko’s No. 14 will be waiting for you, a vivid red rectangle stacked on top of a deep blue, hovering over a dark plum field. Look at it from across the room, then move closer and let its edges overwhelm you. Blur your eyes, focus on the brush stokes visible at the edge, let the shapes start to vibrate and buzz. Take some time out of your busy life to just observe and experience. More difficult than it seems, but well worth the effort.

Here’s more about viewing a Rothko.



I was in row D of the balcony and had a terrible time hearing. Almost all of it sounded run together. The opening scene with Ms. Briskman in her high screechy, scratchy voice was almost totally lost to me. Long sections of that made those scenes quite boring. I contemplated leaving but stuck it out.I now understand that I HAVE to get your hearing aid every time I come. I was waiting for a break and then remembered there would be none. I hate to be so negative but that was my experience. Thanks for the chance to comment. Later....

Armand Caputi | Mon, Mar 19, 2012

Dear Armand,
We're terribly sorry you were having a hard time hearing "A Doctor in Spite of Himself." Our assisted listening devices are free, and it may be useful to pick one up every time you come, just in case. We have plenty. In the meantime, I've sent you an email about this as well.

Karen McKevitt, Communications Manager | Mon, Mar 19, 2012

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