I admit it; I have issues with Mark Rothko. I had hoped that the current Chrysler exhibition, “Perceptions of Being,” would resolve them or, at least, bring me a step closer to a comfortable understanding. But, instead, I feel even more perplexed and frustrated. And, indeed, like a bit of a Philistine.
You see, last June, while at a family birthday celebration in Houston, TX, I corralled three brothers—my cousins—for a visit to the Rothko Chapel. It was a long anticipated destination for me—a pilgrimage of sorts—and just my kind of “boutique” art experience: small, intimate, digestible. But, alas, I came away, as did we all, disappointed and, again, confounded and irritated.
Longing for a nondenominational spiritual respite in the heart of the city, I was saddened not to find it. At least not there. The chapel itself—especially the vestibule with a humble bench on which rests copies of prayer books and sacred texts from most of the world’s dominant religions—was a special place. However, in the chapel proper, the monumental Rothko canvases looked for all the world like they had been sprayed with layers of chalkboard paint. To say that I was underwhelmed is an understatement. It was a colossal letdown. Rothko often spoke about his work in relation to the “human tragedy.” But I can assure you that what I found tragic about this major project that consumed the last years of his life was most assuredly not what he was after.
I appreciate subtlety and nuance—oft mentioned hallmarks of his work— and I tried desperately to find those qualities in the Chapel installation, a collective body of work which is considered by many to be one of the greatest achievements of 20th century art. But I failed in Houston, as I did at the Chrysler. One of my cousins, an art collector, had recently attended the funeral of an artist friend at the Chapel. I could imagine that the Rothko paintings might have contributed to a transcendent experience in that context. But on the hot June day when we visited, I left dejected precisely because I was unmoved. I looked around wondering if anyone else suspected that the emperor had doffed his drawers, for the refrain in my mind was, “Really?” So much for my spiritual-artistic pilgrimage.
Still, in my travels, though I can’t even recall specifically where, I have stood riveted before what I consider to be exceptionally beautiful canvases by Rothko. I can remember having an “ah-hah” moment in front of one when, at long last, I perceived the “pulsation” between the floating layers of glowing color that are woefully irreproducible in print. So, when the Virginia Stage Company recently presented “Red,” a one-act, two-man play set in the artist’s studio, I eagerly accepted an invitation to attend. And I reveled in the dialogue between the tormented, brilliant, defiant, difficult, and self-contradictory artist and his young optimistic assistant who functioned in the play much like the master’s alter ego.
Then, less than a week later, I relished the opportunity to become immersed, as the artist intended, in the six Rothko works that comprise “Perceptions of Being” at the Chrysler. But in the 45 minutes or so that I sat in the small gallery, I felt as though I were starting at square one again in my search to understand this artist who is widely considered to be an undisputed master of 20th century abstract expressionism, largely for his post 1947 paintings.
First, I just looked, desperately seeking…something. As I felt my frustration rise, I decided to read the text panels and other materials provided in the gallery. But it is statements like this that make me want to throw up my hands: “The vertical format of these works echoes the upright position of the human body.” What? Come again? I’m sorry, but a vertical rectangular canvas no more echoes the “upright position of the human body” than a horizontal one echoes a reclining figure. I’m just not buying it.
So, with my frustration mounting, I sat down and started to write what you are reading. Especially two, of the four post-1947 paintings, read like under paintings to me: hasty, even a little careless, and unresolved. I none of them did I find “a paradoxical mix of violence and serenity,” profundity, a portal to another dimension, nor any of the rest of what I was “supposed” to find.
I did, however, find, especially in “Underground Fantasy,” c. 1940, a charming and slightly unsettling, quasi-Surreal depiction of an oft-cited aspect of the human condition: alienation. Here, elegant and attenuated, if a bit odd, figures are rhythmically and unnaturally spaced within an architectural framework. Painted in a neutral pastel palette, the effect is as appealing as it is disquieting.
As I left the gallery, I did so with the hope that a Rothko “tonal shift” would rock my world…and soon, because I am beginning to think that maybe those enigmatic, suspended veils of color I was sure I had experienced at some point in the past are a figment of my imagination, conjured up to match the high brow, over-intellectualized writing about Rothko that I’ve encountered all my adult life.
I’m sorry. Really. I tried. Maybe it’s just me.