I’ve mentioned before on this blog (though admittedly in passing) that my favorite artist is Mark Rothko, the 20th century abstract expressionist. He’s often made fun of because his pieces are, usually, blocks of color on canvas. So many people (and I was one of them) look at his pieces and say “Where’s the skill in that? Anyone could do that! How is this art?”
The big turn for me happened several years ago when studying for the lecture/series I did on Beauty. As I spent nearly a year immersing myself in the philosophy, theory, and theology of aesthetics, I came to finally “get” abstract art. And with it, I realized how to connect with Rothko; and my art sensibilities have been the same since. For more, read my post on the beauty of art.
Still don’t get it? Here’s a quick exercise. Look at the two pieces below. The one on the right is the genuine Rothko. The one on the left is one of those reproductions where someone paints it inch for inch as close to the original as possible.
Now, the differences in color notwithstanding (Rothko’s paintings are incredibly difficult to photograph and capture the real feeling of the painting), how do the two paintings differ? Can you tell that a different person painted each? How can you tell? How do you feel when you look at the one on the left? What about when you look at Rothko’s?
You can’t tell me there’s no difference in skill, emotion, intellect, feel, and profundity. If you still need more of a hand-hold towards seeing the profound beauty of this, I’m happy to do it, but I will require you to purchase me a beer and sit in front of me face-to-face. But it needs to be a good beer. No High Life here. Let me know what you schedule looks like.
Anyway, I’m overjoyed and enraged today.
I’m happy because the world is giving Rothko his due. A couple of days ago, the piece at the top of this post was sold at auction for the second-highest bid for any piece of contemporary art. $75.1 million.
I’m mad, though, because you know what the number one most costly piece of contemporary art ever auctioned is? Another Rothko. But not just any Rothko. It’s the one at the bottom of this page, called Orange, Red, Yellow, and it was auctioned off back in May for $87 million.
And that piece is my favorite piece of art ever. It has had this title for several years now, so don’t think I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect here. I love this piece. It was one of the last ones Rothko ever painted. I’ve spent hours (literally) sitting in front of that piece at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, letting it inside of me and having it do a number on my mind and soul.
I’ve sat so many people on the little bench that sat in front of this piece and I walked them through the forms, colors, passion, sensuality, sexuality, intellect, and pulsating rhythm of the piece. Yes, I know I’m sounding weird, but this is the piece that made me start talking about art in that weird, pretentious-sounding way!
It’s such an incredible piece.
And so it deserves to have this honor of being worth so much (and recognized as such), and I myself feel honored to have spent so much time with it.
But I’m mad because it was auctioned off to an anonymous bidder. It’ll probably sit in some rich person’s house, or maybe it will go on loan to a museum somewhere else where I am not. Or maybe it will just bounce around from one short-term museum home to another all around the world.
Regardless, there’s a very, very good chance I’ll never see it again–ever. My kids won’t see it. I can’t annoy my friends with snarky and snobby art comments while standing in front of it. I can’t just visit it whenever I want and stare at it and let it take me in. Even though I read about all of this back in May, it still frustrates me (especially when the museum hasn’t replaced it with any other Rothko pieces!).
So let this be a call to all of you art lovers and people who want to grow in your art appreciation: walk a little more slowly in art museums.
Let yourself take the pieces in. Use the benches offered to you in the galleries. Work with the pieces. Approach them on their own terms and not on the artistic terms you may be tempted to force upon them. Learn your local museum well, find your favorite pieces and soak yourself in them often. Love them while you can, because you never know how long their effect will be allowed to work its magic on you. Start to practice with the picture of this piece that you see below. Click it. Stare for a long while. Have fun.
Here’s to you, Rothko. May you never cease to move me.