Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko
Untitled. 1969
Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel

It was the Temporary Contemporary in LA, some time in the early 80's. I seem to remember being on my way out of the city because I never went back but I would have, given the chance. I think the room was sunken but I may just be imagining that. The room was so dimly lit, it was almost dark. Only the paintings were lit and lit well and hung quite low. The only paintings in the room were by Mark Rothko. I could feel the paintings breath. I don't know if I would ever have really understood the magnitude of Rothko's paintings had I not walked into that room. Whoever curated that knew exactly what they were doing.
"Rothko was fastidious about presenting his works at a distance that would increase their perceived luminosity, and of course the level of ambient light was also fully implicated in this endeavor. Robert Motherwell reported that Rothko worked in the early morning under intense lights arranged like stage lights, and in the early 1950s the lighter paintings were to be exhibited under the brightest possible gallery lights. But during the course of that decade, as the canvases themselves often became lower in key, Rothko adopted a much more subdued level of lighting, "normal" lighting as he called it in a memorandum to the director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1961. The director, Bryan Robertson, described the effect when, late on a winter afternoon, the painter had the gallery lights turned off: "suddenly Rothko's color made its own light: the effect, once the retina had adjusted itself, was unforgettable, smouldering and blazing and glowing softly from the walls." I well remember my own first experience of seeing Rothko's work, in 1970, passing from the blinding summer sunlight of California into the cool, dim interior of the Pasadena Art Museum and joining the meditative spectators cross-legged on the floor before his paintings. The adaptation of the eye to twilight vision, from cones to rods, has, like peripheral vision, the effect of transforming the appearance of colors from the surface to the film mode. And although Rothko's unification of tone was never as radical as Reinhardt's, whose demands on the spectator became increasingly imperious, Rothko, whether intuitively or not, was clearly determined to secure all the unusual viewing conditions necessary to create the appearance of film."
—from Mark Rothko by Jeffrey Weiss. Yale University Press. 1998
That's it for memories of some memorable shows. Sure, there have been other great moments through the years. Many, really, including the 1996 Cezanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but not all limited to BIG SHOWS. For example, when I lived there (and probably today), The Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida had the most consistently excellent exhibits of the most consistently excellent art I've ever seen at any gallery. There are GREAT artists in Florida.  But tomorrow is the end of the week and it's time to move on to other things.

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