I was recently at the Toledo Art Museum with my always willing mother when we encountered this artifact. We stared at it for a few moments–what my mom was thinking I’ll never know–when it struck me. I exclaimed out loud that it was the tip of a paintbrush. This got a good chuckle. It was a great moment not because we were laughing at the absurdity of what our brains perceived to be nonsense, but rather how abstraction forces the brain to rewire itself. it’s the same as trying to see animal shapes in clouds or the Catholic cross in a Cheeto. We’re programmed to make recognitions from what we see in reality. When confronted with strokes of paint arranged in a vertical fashion, our brain scrambles to make sense of what it sees. It can’t accept that it’s just strokes of paint.
I’ll admit that sometimes when I see a piece of abstract art, I throw my hands up and admit defeat. I just don’t get what I’m supposed to take away from lines of purple paint. Perhaps I should be admiring the technique used? Maybe the inventiveness of the color scheme? I’m not an expert in painting, so I can’t comment on these aspects. What I can say as a casual observer is that I’m not impressed. But that means jack shit.
If there’s one piece that draws my ire, its this untitled pieced by Mark Rothko. Now, let me just preface by stating this article is not about bashing modern art. Nor am I going to make the case that Rothko is shit and pretentious. Anyone familiar with this site will no that’s not what I’m about. But I would be disingenuous if I wasn’t honest about my gut reaction. More so, this article is for people like me who aren’t steeped in the fine arts.
So, before we get into this piece, I want to tell a story about an artist I once met. It was a couple of years ago, and I was in a hospital in New York City for a week stay. Anyone who’s ever been in the hospital for that long will tell you one thing: it’s boring as shit. Anyway, I’ve been in there for a few days, and I’m just walking around the halls, killing time, when this little girl started following me. Now, she’s wasn’t really a girl–she was 20–but she had such a youthful appearance. So now this woman (I’ll leave her unnamed) and I start talking. We tell our stories and she mentions she’s an undergrad art student. We talk further as a friendship starts to grow. The next day she pulls me aside and shows me a set of paint that the art therapist loaned her. We sit down and we start painting. No attempt is made to actually create anything meaningful. We rip up a newspaper and paint the pieces to our makeshift canvas. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to what we call abstract art. Needless to say, it was one the most joyous moments of my life. There’s something so liberating by not being bound to reality, nor having to think. Just letting your hands and mind wander.
So I think I can say on some levels I get abstract art. I can appreciate artists who actually are very talented and can use their skills to create a work that hides their skill. My shredded newspaper painting was shit, so I actually get excited by abstract art that makes me exclaim, “How the fuck did they do that?”
And then there’s Rothko. Funny thing. I had probably seen this painting thirty times throughout my youth without ever knowing who Rothko was or why he was famous. Then, just six months ago, I saw a production of the play Red, written by the ever talented John Logan, which is about the acclaimed Rothko. The set in the production had replicas of Rothko’s works, which I glanced at but made no further notice of. Some months went by and I decided I would start this series of articles about my local art museum. I’m walking through the galleries, practicing my horrid photography, when I encounter this piece and it hits me: That’s a Rothko!
This thought was immediately followed by a knee-jerk reaction; I told myself, “I don’t get it.” I stared at it for a while, and then I told myself it’s kind of like a flag. Or maybe a stop light. Wanting insight, I read the info card next to the painting on the walls.
Leaving pretentious arguments aside, that quote at the top of that card really struck me. So much of my time with abstract art is trying to make sense of what I see, to find meaning in the globs of paint. And yet this quote finally seemed to explain what abstract art aims for. Seeing rectangular shapes on a canvas will in no way imply meaning, at least not apparent meaning. Instead, these works aim for more basic expressions, as if to get a reaction out of the viewer. So what to make of this Rothko piece?
Most noticeable is how the dark and ominous blues dominate much of the area of the canvas, only to be offset by the striking blood red. It’s a dark piece, with the red springing off the canvas. Structurally, the rectangles grow in size as like an inverted pyramid, almost as if the colors are descending from the primary blue and red colors into the void of the black rectangle. I can’t say I get much of an emotional reaction from it but damned if it isn’t dour.
It might come off to you that my description of this piece is reaching. Perhaps it is. Perhaps the piece is just mindless rectangles painted on a canvas. So much depends on the viewer. Like I said, I thought it was a flag. I can’t say I really get it. I definitely don’t understand the acclaim Rothko gets, but that won’t stop me from appreciating it. What the fuck is it? To quote Logan’s play: “RED”.