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GCAC Presents: Does Rothko Speak to You?

Nancy Colvin Nancy Colvin GCAC Presents: Does Rothko Speak to You?
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Mark Rothko Untitled 1949 Oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.138 © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York

Yes, I know, abstract painting is tough and either it speaks to you or it doesn’t. I’ve spent nearly a year reading about Mark Rothko, looking at images of his work, squinting my eyes and looking again trying to figure out what it is I’m missing and honestly, until a few days ago, I still didn’t get it.

Understanding the process that brought him to the mature color field paintings that became synonymous with his name helps you appreciate his skill as an artist. You realize that he didn’t start painting these large bands of color due to a lack of artistic skill. Walking through the galleries as the show was being installed, it was easy to see his progression from figurative painting to blocks of color which for him contained a “breath of life.”

But I was still kind of stuck with that phrase in my head, “That looks like something my kid could do.” So I asked a curator (if you don’t have one handy, I highly recommend you friend one immediately, these people are incredibly helpful) what how she addresses those statements. Her first answer, “Well, no, they couldn’t.”

She was kind enough to go a little further with her answer and explained that Rothko was one of a group of artists that were using those properties that are unique to painting to be as expressive as possible. They reduced the works to their barest essentials exploring what they could communicate using only the canvas, brushwork, color and paint.

Mark Rothko Untitled 1948 Oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.4 © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York

She reminded me that we all respond to color, it is evocative, and really, is there anything wrong with that? A yellow sun makes us smile, blue water soothes.

Rothko himself said, “I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”
And that is the heart of his work I admit that I’m fonder of some of his earlier works. The colors are soothing, the loose forms draw me in. But standing in front of one canvases he saturated with layers of color and paint, you can’t help but be impressed by the way he manipulated the paint, thin here, thick there, a bit of pinking poking through and orange field. You understand the skill that went into his work and the longer you sit with it, the more time you commit to the work, the greater your connection and understanding. And, much as I love the genius prodigies I’m blessed to call my children, no, they couldn’t do that.

Don’t miss Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade, 1940 – 1950 on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through May 26. Visit www.columbusmuseum.org for details.

GCAC Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting art and advancing culture in Columbus – in partnership with the Columbus Arts Marketing Association, a professional development and networking association of arts marketers. Each column will be written by a different local arts organization to give you an insiders look at the arts in Columbus.

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