Updated: Dec 12, 2022
By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder
It’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut. You think, “I despise this (insert person’s name, place, activity, food, show, music here). I’ve always hated it and I know I’ll continue to hate it.” Then – surprise, surprise – something happens, and you find you actually like whatever it is that you avowed you hated.
Everything changes and evolves. Stop and think about it—are you the same person that you were in 2000? In 2019? If you can change, why can’t everything (and everybody) else? By offering grace, we give people the room to become the best versions of themselves. And when you change and grow, your perspective often does as well.
My Introduction to Rothko
The art of Mark Rothko serves as an example of how I learned to appreciate what I once didn’t think I liked at all. I came face-to-face with art he created over his lifetime in a Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) exhibition several years ago. That exhibit caused me to change my mind about him – and ultimately about how to look at things – through helping me gain a different perspective of the famed artist.
I first saw Rothko’s work at the Rothko Chapel, which is part of the Menil Collection in Houston. His huge paintings that dominate the chapel are sobering blocks of dark color made by combining red and black. At the time, I really wasn’t drawn to them and questioned whether the artist needed any skill to create them.
It turns out that my fellow I Start Wondering columnist Mara Soloway felt the same way. “I thought the Rothko paintings were depressing and I wasn’t enamored with them,” she said. “I didn’t get the point.” Both Mara and I wondered whether the paintings were a reflection of his depressed state prior to his suicide in 1970. It turns out we were wrong.
Those few paintings colored both of our perspectives when we thought about learning more about Rothko and his work. “I knew he was a Russian émigré. I knew he was an abstract artist, and I knew that he committed suicide,” Mara said. “Based on only seeing a few paintings, I didn’t really pursue him. I just didn’t think I’d like his work.”
Learning to Re-Appreciate Life Through Art
Then the MFAH put together a retrospective of Rothko’s work that started getting great reviews. The advertisements with brightly colored paintings made both Mara and me feel like we needed to delve deeper into the artist.
The exhibition provided context for Rothko’s life and work in the time he was born. Born in 1903 as Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia, Rothko and his family emigrated to Portland, OR when he was a boy. The artist had varied interests, including music, literature, and theater; in fact, he described his paintings as “drama.” He attended Yale University in 1921, pursuing a diverse study program that included English, French, European history, elementary mathematics, physics, biology, economics, philosophy, and psychology in preparation for becoming an engineer or an attorney. However, he decided to discontinue his studies to move to New York City in 1923, where he attended the Art Students League.
The artist began to refine his work, including exploring themes of myth, prophecy, archaic ritual, and the unconscious mind in the mid-1940s. He became a leader in the New York school, a group of painters who served as the new collective voice in American art. Slowly but surely, Rothko “created a new and impassioned form of abstract painting,” according to the National Gallery of Art.
In 1949, Rothko initiated a compositional format—several vertically aligned rectangular forms set within a colored field—that he continued to explore for the rest of his career. These works celebrated color, more than shape. In the 1950s, he increasingly simplified his forms, applying brilliant hues and broadly applying thin washes of color. He linked visual elements—luminosity, darkness, broad space, and contrasting colors—to themes of tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime. The artist earned his first important solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961. However, Rothko’s health began declining later that decade before his suicide in 1970.
Taking the Long View
The MFAH exhibit was laid out in chronological order, showing Rothko’s technique in depicting forms in his early work. That proved to both of us that he had the skill set. “He studied and he was all about being an artist,” Mara said.
We also experienced Rothko’s evolution as his work increasingly pared away figures in order to reach the essence of each painting. “So you see in his paintings fewer and fewer distinct forms – fewer people and more squares of color with variations in shading,” Mara said.
The exhibit provided context to the paintings that we initially dismissed. One of the MFAH descriptions included comments by Rothko’s son, who said his father didn’t want the paintings in the Rothko Chapel to distract visitors from their thoughts. Instead, he wanted viewers to take a contemplative stance when viewing the Rothko Chapel paintings. “That was an interesting take on what I originally had thought was a depressing, unappealing thing,” Mara said. “Instead, it became something I could look at while getting lost in my own thoughts.”
The MFAH retrospective also offered some background into Rothko’s suicide. It turns out that he was suffering from heart issues and could no longer paint. “He was an artist who couldn’t work anymore,” Mara said. “His suicide made more sense knowing this.”
That exhibition sparked a reevaluation of preconceptions – and a resolve to consider different perspectives when looking at both art and life. “It’s a matter of deciding to reconsider your opinion – and my opinion was based on two paintings from his later years, which frankly I didn’t understand when I first saw them.” Mara said. “He lived 70-80 years so there had to be more to him,”
Additionally, we both learned to appreciate the artist’s personal voice and intention in the creation. “It doesn’t matter if I like it or I don’t,” Mara said. “The question is whether I can appreciate that the artist is trying to say something important.”
Perhaps we can apply this lesson in our current culture to bridge divisiveness. Instead of negatively and permanently dismissing someone based on their beliefs or choices, we can become curious. Why does this person believe this? What life situations have happened to prompt their decisions? How can we find commonality instead of moving instantly to judgement?