“The average museumgoer spends two or three seconds looking at an artwork before moving on,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair and curator of a new “immersive” display of 11 Mark Rothko paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
“Rothko is not an artist whom you should rush through. You should spend a full minute looking at one of his works, and find out how it really affects you.”
Initially, the MFA had sought to borrow one Rothko work, but instead an arrangement was reached under which Washington D.C.’s National Gallery, where the artist’s family bequeathed much of his work, agreed to loan the MFA 11 pieces.
Rothko, an immigrant in the United States whose art career spanned from the 1930s to his death in 1970, is best known for his huge paintings featuring shimmering color without representations of people, landscape, or any of the other sorts of things you typically see in paintings.
“A painting is not a picture of an experience,” Rothko once said. “It is an experience.”
So the best thing for a visitor to do is to slow down, maybe turn off the cell phone, and give yourself time to stand for a full minute in front of the Rothko works and see what comes up.
“Some people feel nothing,” says Davis. “Other people burst into tears. But they aren’t tears of sadness. It is the emotional experience of feeling a deep sense of connection with another human spirit.”
The collection begins with an extraordinary juxtaposition of two works featuring self-portraits of artists apparently contemplating their next works.
One is the young Rothko, replete with high forehead and great head of hair, considering either a ballerina or an actress, in what appears to be a proscenium arch, prior to painting her.
The other work is by one of Rothko’s favorite artists, Rembrandt. In Artist in his Studio, circa 1626, a small gem the painter eyes, perhaps warily, from a slight distance a massive canvas which appears to be calling him to get started painting.
The exhibition, Mark Rothko: Reflection, also features several of Rothko’s early works, one of which evinces the spirit of Joan Miró, the symbolist painter Rothko deeply admired. If all you think of are those huge blocks of color, these smaller, early pieces come as a revelation.
Rothko either left his works untitled or simply numbered them, which means that you will see Untitled, 1955; #10, 1949; and #1, 1961, and then three of the huge black works that Rothko did in 1964.
“The narrative is that the artist was depressed, which is why he painted so much in black,” Davis says. “But there’s really more to the story than that. Rothko would start with other colors—red or green—and then paint over them. That’s why you have to give these pieces a full minute. You just can’t look at them for a couple of seconds and move on.”
Meditative music plays in the background in the gallery, enticing art lovers to hit the pause button, slow down, and be with the Rothkos, instead of simply glancing at them, checking the box that says “saw it,” and then rushing on.
The suggestion is to visit the exhibition—it is a unique opportunity for New Englanders to see a large collection of Rothko’s work without leaving home—but at the same time, don’t rush through it.
Rothko’s work reveals its subtleties slowly, but only to those who care to invest more than a few seconds that we typically give masterpieces as we rush from one gallery to the next, and then out the museum door to continue our busy lives.
Mark Rothko: Reflection, through July 1, 2018, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For further information, www.MFA.org.