Thanks to the continuing generosity of Klaus Ottman, I had the incredible privilege of gaining access to the Phillips Collection when the museum was closed last Monday to sit in the Rothko Room. It was a sort of farewell to the research phase and a visit to the first “waystation chapel” that Rothko had envisioned. I was met by Megan Kuck, coordinator for the Center for the Study of Modern, who graciously led me to the room, had some materials for me to read about the works in the room, and left me alone to the paintings and my thoughts.
I had been there before, of course, with Mr. Ottman, but this time – alone – it was different. A deeper experience. I sat in the room for a bit and then, suddenly, felt compelled to read the play out loud, following Rothko’s instructions as spoken in the first scene of the play to his new assistant, Ken:
What do you see? Wait. Stand closer. You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you. Closer. Too close. There. Let it spread out. Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you, filling your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist. Let the picture do its work – But work with it. Meet it halfway for God’s sake! Lean forward, lean into it. Engage with it!… Now, what do you see?
I walked up to the paintings, maybe 18″ away, wanting to be engulfed by the color. I wanted to walk into them. I saw layers of color and sensations of mood and vague undefinable uneasiness. I continued to read the play out loud, talking to the paintings, wanting to feel what Rothko felt in working them. It seemed the right thing to do, like being in church and saying prayers, the rosary or something, to a patron saint, trying to connect the art and the man I have come to know in the research, with the character in the play. I examined the paintings closely, looking at how the fields blended, one color ending, another beginning. This time, the paintings gained spatial depth for me. The spaces seemed to open, the edges in Green and Tangerine on Red, 1956 the dark space seemed to recede, as if the there was an architectural ledge between the fields.
I noticed the tangerine to be a little wider than the green giving it more of a foreground feel. The hazy red in between acting as a highlight to create a sense of depth. Remarkable.
The one painting that disturbed me was the Green and Maroon, 1953. The Green felt bluish and dark, foreboding. Disturbing. Faces appeared in the darkness. Like the image of He Who Must Not Be Named emerging from the dark night.
The murkiness was so seductive.
In the play, and in life, Rothko was particularly anxious about how the “pictures,” as he called them, should be lighted. He preferred dim lighting, allowing the luminescence inside the paintings to come forward. Well, in a stunning moment, about half way through my visit, someone came in and said, “Excuse me, I am sorry to interrupt, but we are doing a photo shoot in an adjacent room, and we have to turn all the lights out in the building for about 10 minutes. Would you mind?” I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was as if the spirit of Rothko himself had entered and was present in the room, giving this gift of experience to me before leaving for Chicago to begin rehearsals at the end of the week! I was stunned and moved by the remarkable opportunity to view the paintings in light that I knew Rothko would have preferred, or at least, approved. Like he did himself.
IF PEOPLE WANT SACRED EXPERIENCES THEY WILL FIND THEM HERE.
IF THEY WANT PROFANE EXPERIENCES THEY’LL FIND THEM TOO.
I TAKE NO SIDES.
I sat with the paintings for those 10 minutes with nothing but the natural light that entered from the sliver of a window in the room. It was astonishing. The paintings did have a glow to them. And when the lights came back, it seemed so harsh. A similar moment happens in the play. I felt so humbled by the apparent coincidence. Jung would have called it “synchronicity.”
Some time later, Karen, the librarian came to the room, invited me to visit the library where she gave me copies of text written by Duncan Phillips about Rothko’s work and a letter he wrote to Rothko discussing the purchase of his work. I share them below, along with some detailed photos of the paintings.
Aside from the lights out moment and meeting Karen, the only other visitor was the man who came in to sweep the floor. He seemed unfazed by the paintings, blithely going about his job. Rothko had wanted his paintings, particularly the Seagrams murals, to be visible by the staff of the building. Well, here it was in the flesh, the cleaning staff of the Collection walking through, as he must have done hundreds of times before. I wonder if he ever given these works the time that Rothko hoped. I doubt it. An interesting juxtaposition and insight into the sadness Rothko musst of felt knowing how much his worked was misunderstood, or unregarded by those he perhaps most wished to reach.
When I left the room, I realized that two hours had past. It seemed like a few moments. I left feeling a palpable sense of closeness with the artist. Something I hope to carry with me moving forward. I finish this entry with a little slide show I put together of the Seagram’s murals accompanied by music written for the Rothko Chapel. It’s my non-verbal response to my visit to the Phillips – a small attempt to communicate the solitude and reflective impact these works continue to have one me.
I cannot express my gratitude enough to Klaus Ottman and The Phillips Collection, Megan, Karen, and the entire staff for giving me this rare and extraordinary opportunity to prepare for the work ahead on the play. A fitting conclusion to the research phase and a great launch to the rehearsals in Chicago that begin tomorrow!
Duncan Phillips to Rothko:
February 17, 1964
Mr. Mark Rothko
118 E. 95th Street
New York City
You must remember that when you were here in Washington with us it was a great surprise and joy to me to discover that your beautiful painting which was in the autumn exhibition at the Janis Gallery could be acquired directly from you on terms of delayed payments, price twenty thousand dollars, five thousand annually commencing the season of 1964-65. This is a statement to that effect for your files and I would like to receive a corresponding agreement on your part confirming our conversation.
In a very generous moment you asked me whether I would like to receive the picture and enjoy it right away. Because of my advanced age that is really an inducement. If you mean it, it would be a great privelelge and I hope you will have it sent at our expense through Budworth. I cannot tell you how much we enjoyed your visit and our talks. With warm regards,
Duncan Phillips on Rothko:
In the soft edged and rounded rectangles of Mark Rothko’s matured style there is an enveloping magic which conveys to receptive observers a sense of being in the midst of greatness. It is the color of course. These canvases which have been called empty by the resistant skeptics and which certainly depict nothing at all are nevertheless a vibrant life-enhancing experience to those who make themselves ready for them. They cast a spell, lyric or tragic, which fills our existence while the moments linger.
They not only pervade our consciousness but inspire contemplation. Our minds are challenged by relativities; the relative measures of the two horizontal presences, one larger than the other, each acting on the other, and incomplete without the other, each mysteriously compounded of scumbled overtones, yet all mat, saturated, rich layer soaked into richer depths.
Rothko denies a desire to enchant. He only invites reflection. the weather his colors create can be ominous. Frequently it is just vaguely troubled. There is never a conflict, not even a dissonance, rather a duality some evanescent difference, some sudden awareness of the complexity of existence. Colour-atmosphere in painting is as old as Giovanni Bellini and his mountain backgrounds before sunrise or sunset. We think also of late Turner and of late Bonnard. But in Rothko there is no pictorial reference at all to remembered experience. What we recall are not memories but old emotions disturbed or resolved – some sense of well being suddenly shadowed by a cloud,
yellow ochres strangely suffused with a drift of gray, prevailing over and ambience of rose, or the fire diminshing into a glow of embers, or the light outside as night descends.
I close with this little piece of the Seagrams Murals. Meditative. Emotional. Exciting. All the things I feel as I close one phase of the process of making RED and begin the work of rehearsals in Chicago.
Thanks for reading and for your commments.