To best see the spectacular gallery of seven Mark Rothko ‘black paintings’ in the Tower Gallery at the National Gallery of Art, you need to visit thrice. You should visit once when it is overcast. You should visit once on an all-blue-sky, sunny day. But my favorite way to enjoy this little Rothko treat when there is a mix of clouds and sun in the sky, when the wind is blowing and when the light levels are constantly changing. [Image: Installation shot of No. 6 (?), No. 2, No. 8 and No. 4. Photos by Rob Shelley, courtesy NGA.]
Unlike most of the NGA East Building’s galleries, the tower gallery is capped by a big skylight. As a result, a curator has the option of bathing whatever s/he hangs there with lots of light. For years, NGA curators installed Matisse’s cutouts in the massive space. Not long ago NGA curator Harry Cooper moved the Matisses and opened up the skylights. The result has been the creation of the best only good gallery space in the East Building. Until Jan. 2, the result is possibly the best single gallery in America, an installation of seven of Rothko’s 1964 ‘black paintings.’ A side-gallery features other Rothko works — from a range of periods — that include black.
A couple weeks ago I noticed that the weather was likely to be a mix of sun and clouds, so I cleared my afternoon and made a beeline for the NGA. Upon reaching the tower, I sat on a bench to allow my eyes to adjust to the light level — there were no overhead lights on — and to soak in the space. While the spaces downstairs were crowded with visitors, up here it was quiet, really quiet.
After my eyes adjusted, I started walking up to each painting, examining it. As the sun went behind the clouds here and there, my eyes had to adjust to the dark paintings in front of me, an involuntary adjustment that I could actually feel. I had to ‘get used’ to a painting again every time I looked down at the off-white of my notebook and then back up at a painting. Just as a Doug Wheeler or a Robert Irwin seems to adjust your sense of sight as you look at it, so too these Rothkos.
What I saw was how different these paintings are, how the art historical tendency to group paintings as ‘black paintings,’ is a convenient fiction. Untitled features a matte grey background with a slightly more reflective brown surface than the other paintings. No. 5 is a black square on a slate color, only it’s a particularly brushy painting. No. 4 features a black rectangle on a brownish-burgundy ground. And No. 6 (?) features a purple ground, not much black at all. The squares or rectangles are all applied to ‘their bases’ differently: Sometimes they’re brushed on, sometimes smudged. Sometimes there’s a clear delineation between rectangle and base, sometimes it’s fuzzy-hazy. [The only one that photographs even a teeny-bit decently is No. 7, which is at right.]
At least that’s what you see when you’re up close. From a distance, they really seem black. If a visitor just pops into the gallery, that’s what they’ll be. But like Irwins or Wheelers, the more time you spend with them, the more colors and nuances you see. Sometimes when I spend an hour or more with just seven paintings, I speed up as I reach the last couple paintings. Here, I realized the Rothkos were giving me more and more with each painting, more points of comparison and difference. The last two paintings I spent time with here were the two I spent the longest with. At Untitled (No. I was fascinated by a line of accumulated brush hairs at the bottom of the black rectangle. There are a few stray brush hairs throughout the painting as there are in most of these 1964 canvases, but there’s nothing like this anywhere else in this painting or in the gallery. They don’t look like they were a product of brushwork, but like they were placed there intentionally. It’s the kind of thing that’s a little bit difficult to see in a gallery lit only by electricity. But in the NGA’s tower, every detail in these quiet Rothkos shouts out.