Monday, June 2, 2008

Mark Rothko - Orange and Yellow, 1956

I really love this painting. Modernist painting can be very difficult to understand, and I think my love for Rothko was a long progression. I always liked the colors from the images I had seen in art history books, but it has taken me time to really appreciate the work.

Have you ever seen the show "the Power of Art" on PBS? This really pretentious guy hosts the show and focuses on one artist each episode. It's wonderful because yes it brings in biographical and cultural contexts, but it also focuses on the straight art history and art theory. I learned from this show that I really don't like Andy Warhol. I always thought that I just didn't get the work. And it's true - I didn't. But gaining a deeper understanding didn't help me appreciate it. But, I did find after learning about Mark Rothko that there was much more going on than just color blocks.

That same summer I went to Washington DC for a quick trip and saw my first Rothko in person at the Smithsonian. When I watched the PBS show about his work he explained the emotional response the paintings evoke and the effectiveness not only in the choice of colors but also in the composition. This wasn't clear to me until I saw them in person. The bright color that shines out behind the blocks makes the whole painting seem to vibrate and emit light. And the scale is so important to the effectiveness of the image. It cannot be experienced fully in a book or online. I suppose no art can... but it seems true for Rothko more than others.

I took a Modernism and Postmodernism art history class this quarter and it's amazing how the theory can illuminate the work itself. I learned, through my class and through my own experience, that modernist art, though focuses on the emotional response, cannot be fully understood without an understating of the theory. Rothko's work is not about representation. It's about the medium and about what paint can do. Its about flatness, color, and the emotional response. The modernists felt that emotion was important, and that represented images can evoke emotions. But its guided and the audience feels the emotions the artists wants them to feel. If you remove the representation, then the emotion is pure. It is real. This Rothko painting seems hopeful and happy not because there is a sunrise or a summer day, but because the medium can evoke that feeling all on its own.

I wasn't planning on going on an art theory rant... but I think the way this helps one view modern works is amazing. I always liked Rothko, but after the way I've engaged with his work through learning about it and experiencing it in person, I know why I like the paintings. Knowing why, at least for me, makes me appreciate the art even more.