This past weekend, even with the ever elusive San Francisco sunny day on the horizon, we decided it was time for a little slice of culture and headed for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They had an exhibit on display, sharing the rich and fairly impudent history of not only the SFMOMA in the last 75 years but modern art in general: it's seed, birth, rebellion, it's latent insecurity and evident transformation. Everything from the first solo Pollock exhibit, to the familiar colors and lines of a Matisse and the fervent dots that make up a Lichtenstein.
I will openly admit that I'm one of those museum visitors who cannot resist reading all the mini novels carefully and aridly written on the wall next to each painting. In fact, as we were walking around I found myself very jealous of those with a convenient headset. I think the jealousy came on when I found myself standing awkwardly too close to a painting, reading intently, and realized that I had failed to even look at the art itself before digesting the words. I know that in many ways we would be nowhere without the context of history, but I wonder how our experiences would be different without it. Perhaps the understanding of art sometimes requires the absence of any context at all.
For me, the proof for this is idea is Mark Rothko. Even though I had previously been to the museum, it had slipped my mind that the museum had a Rothko in it's permanent collection and as I rounded another white wall for more, I couldn't help but to be blown away, again, by this monstrosity of color. And it truly is just that: three colors painted on a monstrous canvas. It's that simple.
It might be embarrassing for me to admit how much research I've done on Rothko trying to uncover what's behind the color. The suicide, the Seagram murals, the rejection of abstract expressionism, the unfinished book, the Rothko chapel, the supposed religiosity of his work, the tumultuous marriage.
My devotion to these details is similar to my inability to not read the provided text on the wall next to each painting. We're trained as human beings to connect knowledge to emotion. Feeling is no longer first, as e.e. cummings told us it should be. We think first, and then feel.
Because of this, viewers often fail to understand Rothko. The simplicity is intended, it's essence is the art itself, because like the art of a child which demands no intellectual pretense and asks for no history, it is a replica of raw emotion and a direct projection of the self. There are no lines to signal space or boundaries, nothing drawn from the archives of human memory, just color. And color is as close to the beginning as I can remember. I don't event recall "learning" colors, if that's what we do. It is, as Rothko intended, primitive, because it demands so little from the mind, and so much from what is just felt.
None of this should come as a surprise to those who have studied abstract art. But unlike the frantic lines of a Pollock or the the deliberate shapes of a Gorky, there is something inherently peaceful and yet somehow silently terrifying about a Rothko to me. I can't get enough.