A Painting is the Experience

‘Mark Rothko: A Retrospective” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

“Painting is just as natural a language as singing or speaking. It is a method of making a visible record of our experience…colored by our own feelings and reactions and indicated with the same simplicity and directness as singing or speaking.” — Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko - Untitled, 1951

Mark Rothko – Untitled, 1951

He came to the United States on a boat at the age of 10, dressed all in black, with a label on his chest, “I don’t speak English.”  A drop in a tidal wave of 2.3 million Jews from Russia that descended upon the American shores between 1880 and 1920. These people were not typical immigrants leaving their homeland in search of better opportunities, they were refugees escaping from persecution, oppression and pogroms. Their Odyssey foreshadowed many more forced migrations that happened in the course of the next 80 years and earned the 20th century a dubious distinction of being “the century of refugees” — the term used by Lionel Rosenblatt, President of Refugees International, in his interview with Barbara Crossette.1

Mark Rothko’s experiences as an immigrant and an outsider were at the core of his art. Out of displacement, rejection, xenophobia and exclusion, there emerged the metaphysical theme of identity which Rothko expressed in his paintings, writing and his activist stance.

The exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is the first large Rothko retrospective in Houston since 1979. It showcases 60 works, most of them from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. These paintings may be rightfully called “Rothko’s Rothkos” — they were within the artist’s own collection at the time of his death. The exhibition gives visitors an unequaled opportunity to see the full range of Rothko’s achievement in the city that features his most acclaimed and enduring public commission — the Rothko Chapel.

Walking from one gallery to another, we follow the journey of this extraordinary artist from his early figurative paintings to the classic monochromatic compositions. Surrounded by large-scale, somber-color canvases of his late period, one experiences a feeling akin to being in the Rothko Chapel — spiritually upifting and invoking meditation. It is not surprising that the Museum, in partnership with the Rothko Chapel, is hosting a special series of “Art, Body & Mind” programs in the exhibition space. Each event in the series is titled in response to a different quotation by Rothko and includes a talk and a meditative practice.

The story of Rothko’s life did not follow the traditional pattern of a child prodigy who dreamed of being an artist since the tender age. Like all Jewish boys of his time, he started his education by attending cheder and studying the Talmud at his hometown of Dvinsk (today Daugavpils, Latvia.) As a young man, he enrolled, on a scholarship, at Yale University with the intention of becoming an engineer or an attorney. However, he left the school after just one and a half years, repulsed by Yale’s conservatism and elitism. It was then that he came to realization that only in the art world he could find his identity.

Mark Rothko - Street Scene

Mark Rothko – Street Scene

“Street Scene” (1936-37) illustrates Rothko’s search for his own voice while analyzing, and experimenting with, work of his contemporaries, in this case, his friend Milton Avery. The flatness of the figures and the space may be seen as an indication of Rothko’s growing interest in abstraction. At the same time, this is not a purely intellectual exercise in color and shape. The scene is imbued with emotion which is especially keenly felt in the figures of the woman and the little girl, probably a mother and a daughter. The mother is slightly leaning towards her daughter and is listening attentively while the girl is excitedly gesticulating and looking up at her mother as if searching for comfort or reassurance.

The artist steadily moved towards nonrepresentation, going through a Surrealist phase in the mid-1940s and arriving at “multiforms,” the precursors of his tiered, horizontally-oriented compositions, which today we instantly recognize as “Rothkos.” His friendship with famous Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still played a decisive role in this transition. In “No. 9” (1948), amorphous forms are floating in a homogenous space, as if engaged in an ongoing discourse. Rothko often referred to his multiforms as actors performing a drama in which no move or gesture could be anticipated.

Mark Rothko - No 9

Mark Rothko – No 9

The artist continued to eliminate all indications of a narrative in his compositions until all that was left was a soft-edged, horizontal rectangle suspended within a monochromatic field. At the same time, his use of color became increasingly rich, with the warm orange and red dominating his palette. He summarized his artistic vision in the following statement which reads like a manifesto: “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer. As examples of such obstacles, I give (among others) memory, history or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from [which] one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.”

Having reached at this level of clarity, Rothko stopped writing about his art. He believed that his paintings should speak for themselves. However, at his studio, a philosophical discourse about art never ceased, and many of his friends and visitors recalled being engaged in a kind of a “rabbinical exercise,” posing questions, raising arguments and debating issues. Rothko’s voice still comes to us through the words of these people.

Is it fair then, in view of the artist’s stance, to talk about Rothko’s classic paintings? In my opinion, the exhibition’s audioguide provides an excellent solution. Visitors can listen to responses to Rothko’s work made by writers, musicians and curators, or enjoy music selections, among them Morton Feldman’s famous “Rothko Chapel” concert from 1971.

Mark Rothko - Untitled, 1969

Mark Rothko – Untitled, 1969

I became intrigued by analogies between Rothko’s work and music, which, perhaps more than any other art form, requires the ability to reach a deep meditative state for both the composer and the audience. Music composed in response to Rothko’s paintings covers almost every genre – classical, folk, rock, ambient, experimental, jazz…  Serendipitously, the Houston Chronicle published an article by Andrew Dansby “Musicians Inspired by Rothko Chapel” on Sunday, Sept. 20, the opening day of the exhibition at MFAH. Here are a few quotes from the musicians who were interviewed by the journalist.

“It’s easy to think about the depth of Rothko’s meditative states. I know I’m not the only musician that suffers from too many thoughts, and Rothko’s Chapel reminds us to breathe” (Jazz pianist Jason Moran).

“I think that chapel is one of the most powerful places on earth. How often do you get chance to visit a place with such complete silence?” (Ian Asbury, singer of the band “The Cult”).

“There are hidden qualities of experiences that I think about quite a bit. And I think other musicians do, too…He (Rothko) got me thinking about light and form. I started studying his work more closely and learned about his intentions behind some of the paintings. The idea of projecting a feeling rather than a flat surface” (Rob Mazurek, jazz musician and painter).

How often do we try to impose literal associations with the surrounding world upon a work of art? It is difficult to resist an impulse to hear a bubbling brook in a musical piece or to see a landscape in a Rothko’s painting. Instead of yielding to this irksome temptation, let’s practice freeing our minds from extraneous thoughts and opening up to a work of art.

As we walk into Rothko’s exhibition, let the paintings wrap around us. Let us be reminded of the artist’s words: “A painting is not a picture of an experience. It is the experience.” Let us look at the magnificent expanses of color, sometimes bright and vibrant, sometimes dark and unfathomable, and listen to our own instinctive responses. And then we may have a revelation, like composer Philip Glass, who wrote this about Rothko’s canvases: “I could, and I did, sit in front of these paintings for long stretches, bathing in their strength and wisdom.”

“Mark Rothko: A Retrospective” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through Jan. 24, 2016. For more information about related educational programs, museum hours and tickets, visit www.mfah. org.

1 New York Times, Dec. 31, 2000.

Elena Ivanova

ISSUE staff writer