A curator describes his first encounter with Rothko’s work
Mark Rothko once described his goal as “eliminating obstacles between the painter and the observer.” For Rothko, painting was a high stakes proposition: a way to transcend the trivialities of everyday life and open up a space for spiritual contemplation.
I had no language to describe that experience.
That’s SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels describing his first encounter with a room of Rothko’s paintings, shortly after he left college.
Cause it was a kind of epiphany about a different kind of relationship to a work of art… It was meditative, it was emotional, it was spiritual, it was psychological… It’s about no longer expecting art to depict something of reality, but to transcend that reality.
SFMOMA gave Rothko his first one-person show in 1946 fifteen years later, when he painted this work, his place at the top of the art world was secure, even if he himself was conflicted about his success.
For me, this particular painting is extraordinary because it gets both the brilliant glow of the orange-red in the top and then this deep, beautiful twilight blue at the bottom. So it’s both cool and warm; it’s exciting and—and soothing at the same time. And then the background is a kind of wonderful, almost a—a bruised eggplant kind of purple. So the scale, the way the brushstrokes are put on, the way it captures space and light, fire but also coolness, really sums up, I think, everything Rothko achieved in his paintings, in this one single work.
We’re standing in front of Mark Rothko’s No. 14, 1960. This painting is large, almost nine-feet square. It consists of a huge swath of bright orange paint on top, taking up about two thirds of the space, with a rectangle of rich, brooding, dark cobalt blue below. Both of these shapes float on a background of a muddy purple, the shade of eggplant skin.
The way the artist applies the paint varies. Sometimes he applies it more heavily, which brings each color out in a brighter, more pure way. Sometimes, especially where the colors meet each other, he applies it more thinly, which creates a sense of the color either emerging into view or fading away.
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