Brown Sign: Rothko’s Seagram Murals

One of the advantages of being a theatre and art goer in Washington, D. C. is that these folks know each other and work together for their patrons.  A month ago, we attended a performance of Red at Arena Stage, a play about Mark Rothko’s creative process during the time that the worked on 30 murals, now known as the Seagram Murals.  One of curators at the National Gallery of Art, which has a number of Rothko’s earlier works, arranged to bring 3 of the Seagram Mural to exhibit in the East Wing for the time of the play’s run and through the summer.  Nice set of friends.  Well, this necessitated a pilgrimage to the museum to view the subject of the plays in real time.  

We actually made two trips, the reason for which will become evident as the story unfolds.  We have a regularly planned trek into town one Sunday evening per month to meet up with friends.  We use this as on opportunity to put the garden tools down and do cultural things for the day.  As we had no other activities planned that Sunday, we invited  Linda’s aunt and uncle to lunch and to stop over at the National Gallery.  Our outing started at the Dubliner Irish Pub over by Union Station.  This gave us a pleasant walk to digest our ruben sandwiches, eggs and corn beef hash, and Guiness stew.

Jasper Johns Gallery

As our objective at the museum was to see the Seagram Murals, and Linda’s aunt and uncle have limited endurance for outings, we confirmed at the information desk that the murals were in the modern art gallery directly below where we were standing.  Terrific, only one and a half flights of stairs to descend.  Of course, once at the gallery level, we had the choice between right and left with no specific clue as to which way the murals would be.  I could see a room of Calder mobiles through some other rooms to the right, and some large canvases of color to the left.  We went left, and ended up in the room of Jasper Johns’ paintings.  Rothko would have cringed.

Matisse Paper Cuts

As we did not want to look like we were merely obsessed with seeing only the Seagram Mural, we browsed around these galleries.  They also had a comfortable bench, where we could park for a few minutes, while I figured out where our objective was hung.  With this knowledge, I headed back across the galleries to our party, only to find myself swimming up string of the children’s gallery tour group.  About 20 enthusiastic knee-highs created quite a current, followed by parents and strollers with younger siblings.  Now, I am all in favor of introducing children to art, but I realized that they sat themselves down right in front of the Seagram Murals, while looking at another large painting on a perpendicular wall.  No mater, our group could make a quick turn to the room filled from floor to ceiling with Matisse paper cuts.  Another bench welcomed contemplation.

Calder Mobiles

When our group’s attention began to wane, I moved us passed the youth, contemplating sea and mountains of blue and green on a cream canvas, to the Calder room.  I anticipated an easy move to Rothko’s murals, but I did not calculate how engaging suspended mobiles can be.  When I realized that the gallery was clear, and rallied up our group to move, the next children’s gallery tour crashed in.  We managed to get in, next to the mural before the wave of children splashed around the tidal pool, with foam and furry.  It was quite an energetic experience, though not exactly the quiet contemplation that Rothko might have desired for his viewers.  None the less, we did have a chance to look closely at the mural, to absorb some of Rothko’s painting techniques.  I picked up Bonnie Clearwater’s text, The Rothko Book, to do a little research on his style and artistic development.

Paintings with Figures

What I confirmed is that the large canvases that we associate with Rothko’s style was his later development.  As with many artists, he explored other forms of painting while developing his style.  In the most general terms, he transformed from using recognizable figures and settings, to symbolism and surrealism of mythological themes, to finally abandoning trying to create recognizable images to purely subjective interaction between the artist and canvas.   In the

Symbolism and Surrealism

play, Rothko and his assistant Ken, dramatize this during a scene when Rothko is beginning to prepare a bucket of color.  He mixes his medium and various shades of red.  Then, he walks toward the wall where the murals that he has been working on are hung, looks up, and asks what color he should add.  His assistant, misunderstanding the internal experience of the moment answers, only to have Rothko rant about his interruption. Rothko is not asking his assistant.  He is asking the paintings.  His mind and studio are one reality.

Seagram Murals in Solitude

For our second outing to the Seagram Mural, while the topic was fresh in our minds, came the next Sunday that we had theatre tickets (that will be a separate blog).  We timed our visit to arrive just as the gallery openned, and went directly to the murals.  We alloted 30 minutes, with time to cross town to meet a friend for lunch before the matinee curtain.  This time, we had 30 minutes alone with the murals.  The lone voice was the security guard who informed us that we should not lean too close to the murals.  Was this to protect the murals from us, or to protect us from disappearing into the murals?

What an experience to view a work of art for this duration from as far as 50 feet and as close as 1 foot without interruption.  You can attend to the details of brush strokes, purposely placed colors, and random occurrences, such as drips and scratches in the paint.  You can see the effects of his layering technique.  By thinning out pigments, the previously applied layers of paint fade in and out of view.  When you sit and look without moving, the images begin to raise from the canvas creating depth, which your mind “knows” is not there.   Colors and forms recede as if in the background and move forward as if closer to you.

The mind does not like ambiguity.  While seeing vague images, the mind tries to make the rectangles, and squares, and vertical sections into familiar objects.  A window onto a sunset?  The morning rays silhouetting a portico? A hallway disappearing into shadow?  I know that none of those images are there, but all are possibilities.

As we headed out from our original visit, we stopped at a delightful exhibit of Small French Paintings.  Most of these are from the impressionist era.  I have always thought that abstract expressionists paintings were not terribly different from impressionists paintings, if you just remove the recognizable subjects.  With my cameral, I played with this concept.  Remove the dock and boat, remove the woman opening the curtain, and you have fields of color.  Look deeply, without distraction from the obvious subjects of our lives, and you may find an internal experience which our minds want to grasp, grapple with, and shape into the familiar.  As in the play, when we, the audience, recognize that we are the abstraction, we become part of the art.

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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6 Responses to Brown Sign: Rothko’s Seagram Murals

  1. The Vicar says:

    I think in reading your blog post I’ve discovered why I was such a lousy artist growing up. I always tried to capture everything exactly as it was, which I think is artistically called realism. I had trouble seeing things from different angles or different vantage points. Something either was or it wasn’t, and in my mind there was only one way to look at something. My art suffered from a profound lack of perspective.

    I shall now go out and stare at the redwood deck in the back yard from different distances and contemplate the less obvious meanings that lie beneath the surface of urban landscapes.

  2. The Vicar says:

    Good idea! There is nothing like a little prophetic reading from Zechariah to challenge the perceptions… Zec 5:1-2 ESV Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a flying scroll! And he said to me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a flying scroll. Its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits.”

  3. walkingsmall says:

    Bravo that you take such full advantage of that fabulous series of museums. Best free afternoon around.
    But this is what I was thinking… you started in an Irish Pub close to St Patrick’s Day, and you were surprised that you had trouble finding your focus, first trying one foot away from the painting, then 50 feet? …Irish Pubs, then Smithsonians – interesting combination

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I had only tea the pub, but that was with our first visit 3 weeks ago. On the Irish theme, when we returned for the second visit, a week before St. Patrick’s Day, Constitution Avenue (where the museums are) was closed for the St. Patrick’s Day parade, a week early. We ended up squirrling around town to get parking.

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