Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A productive layover in San Francisco: Finding Rothko at SFMOMA

When I arrived at SFMOMA, I had no idea where to start. With five floors and only an hour and a half before closing, I had to choose. I picked up the map with exhibition summaries. Then I saw it, a tiny thumbnail. It was a Rothko.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960

Suddenly I had a mission. Find the Rothko. Ever since I first saw an image of Mark Rothko’s work in an art history book, I wanted to see his work in person. Now I had a chance. I walked briskly up the stairs, found the exhibition, and began wandering through. Surprised by the breadth of SFMOMA’s permanent collection, I saw many things I knew from art history surveys. Henri Matisse’s La Femme au Chapeau greeted visitors to the exhibition. Moholy-Nagy’s artwork hung in the next room. Then, I headed into another era of modern art which included work by Picasso.

As I entered the abstracts, something nagged at the periphery of my vision. I turned to my left, and I saw it. The Rothko. It took up an entire wall, and its allure drew me through a gallery, or two, full of work by Dali, Magritte, and Duchamp. Aware of how ridiculous it all seemed, I felt drawn by the painting. If I tried to ignore it, my curiosity would nag. I would not be able to enjoy anything until I had seen the Rothko.

As the Rothko began to envelop me, I stopped, just outside its grasp, behind the bench and a little off center. Another visitor sat on the bench in front of the painting. Despite surroundings that would normally serve as distractions, the indigo and orange vibrated off the eggplant background. The other visitor became part of the experience. I stepped closer to the painting, observing the feel of the oil paint on canvas. The sheen had been mostly absorbed by the canvas. I felt welcomed and surrounded by the painting. I felt like crying for joy. The painting not only drew me nearer, it pulled emotions out. Afraid that I would interrupt someone else’s experience, I stepped over to the didactic wall panel. The wall panel explained that the painting usually evoked a highly emotional response and even though many people wanted to step back from the painting, it was meant to encompass the viewer. I moved further away and closer to the painting. Observing details. Having a dialogue with the artwork. Wondering at the power of such a seemingly simple idea. In awe of Rothko’s ability to choose colors which resonated so well. I stayed near the painting for nearly ten minutes before I realized that other works of art were on the walls near the Rothko.

Then, the question hit me. As a curator, what would you place next to a painting with such presence? What could possibly let the Rothko speak and at the same time not be completely covered by the Rothko’s voice? To the left of the painting was a Motherwell entitled Elegy to the Spanish Republic. While Rothko's work demanded attention, Motherwell’s painting held its own. Its lack of color sharply contrasted the Rothko, and its size competed well.  To fully observe the it, I had to turn my back on the Rothko, and this served Elegy well. Yet, to the right of Rothko's painting, another painting with abstract shapes and various colors utterly failed at capturing my attention.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 57, 1957-1960.

After I had taken in the entire gallery installation, I stepped back and began watching others. Statistically museum visitors spend less than 3 seconds per work of art, but this Rothko must have a higher average. The bench placed in front of it signaled that or, perhaps, it encouraged visitors to linger. Whatever the case, the bench enabled me to observe people as they interacted with the artwork. It was amusing. Some were like me and could not pull themselves away. Very few passed up the Rothko. And unlike many works of art where I want to have the whole piece to myself, step into the painting, and not be disturbed, Rothko’s work had such influence over others that watching them encounter the painting became as much a part of the experience as the painting itself.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960 at SFMOMA 

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