Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Mark Rothko’s black canvases in the light

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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. 8) 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.

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  1. Dawson Weber says:

    This seems to be an odd curatorial decision at the NGA as it is common knowledge that Rothko intended his paintings to be seen in much dimmer light. I would also think that the light of a full sunny day would be hard on the paintings conservationally speaking. They are fragile paintings.

  2. […] visited the exhibit for a second time today after reading a post by art blogger Tyler Green. He recommends taking in the Rothkos when the weather is changeable, to […]

  3. me says:

    Absolutely terrible, I’m speechless. I was advised to check out these ‘paintings’ by a friend and I have spent a good 30 minutes re-assuring myself this was not a joke. I literally cannot fathom that there are individuals that deluded in this planet that will call a black canvas art. I’m honestly so confused right now…surely you people are not for real..i mean you MUST be joking right? come on can’t you see it… There’s nothing special- really I’m not just saying that because i don’t understand the complex story behind it or it’s subtle undertexts… there is nothing there

    It makes me wonder what sort of planet we are living in. I’m questioning life right now and not in a good way- what is it with some individuals? why must they do this and make things difficult

    Pretentious beyond words…. Absolutely shocking, anybody can re-create such a ‘piece’ given 20 minutes and a cheap tin of paint.

    Hopefully i will forget about this whole thing before the morning, it’s not even funny. And i have spoken with my friend and told them to never discuss this sort of thing ever again lest i see red and spark them unconscious there and then for such an idiotic display

  4. […] 5.) “In the Tower: Mark Rothko” at the National Gallery of Art. The work requires a quiet, evenly lit installation — and NGA curator Harry Cooper provided one. (On MAN.) […]

  5. […] looking at Mark Rothko’s black period paintings is just what you need to do. Thank god I don’t know how to embed sound loops in […]

  6. john4carter says:

    Insanely Rediculous… How someone can look at black canvas and come up with such deep meaning out of nothing. Do these people see images of Jesus in Cheese Tarts? Do they find deep spiritual understanding out of a Dorito’s Label?

  7. Ola says:

    “…anybody can re-create such a piece given 20 minutes and a cheap tin of paint.”

    And you believe that and call the painting “pretentious?” A classic case of projection, in my opinion. I suspect Rothko would have been pleased with your reaction.

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