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Art as an Experience


With Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel, I embarked on a 3-week book tour throughout the United States. I decided to emphasize my particular angle – the social, political and geographical aspects of Rothko’s trajectory and impact. But on the day before my departure, I ran across a press release: « Rare Mark Rothko Painting Leads Christie’s New York Auction. » So, on May 13th, No36 (Black Stripe), one of Rothko’s most gorgeous paintings, will be auctioned in New York for a price estimated between 30 and 50 million dollars. This painting is a true ode to the color red – with dark red, black and red rectangles floating on a red background. Dating from 1958, it epitomizes the most prolific years in the artist’s career when he showed at the great Sidney Janis gallery.

Assessing Rothko’s art through his market value is certainly essential and I am convinced about the strength of his legacy until today. But what about the artist’s constant need to interact with the public at large? What about his plea that art become experience rather than consumption? What about his search, his anxieties, the counterpoise between financial and spiritual values? I tried to grasp those elements in order to shed light on the very unique territory in which the artist agonized his entire life, I alluded to his apprehensions with some unethical dealers. How will the the publication of the book intersect with the auction sale? Wouldn’t such an irony be recalled repeatedly by my interlocutors in the US? Such were my thoughts when I when I boarded the plane from Paris to New York.

Charlie Rose’s interview is like a hurricane

The next day, the whirlwind of events is already gripping. Charlie Rose’s interview is like a hurricane. He shows a few slides, and asks a ton of questions, reminding me of Bernard Pivot in his glorious years. «What’s your next book?» he asks, and I am off with the feeling that he has managed to get the very best out of me, even despite my jet lag.…

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marla Prather crafted the conversation beautifully, as the dedicated scholar I had already admired back in 1990, at the National Gallery, during her hanging of a memorable Malevitch show. She explains that the Metropolitan Museum owns a collection of 17 Rothko paintings and, during her introduction, she displays N°3, 1953, a work donated by Chicago collector Muriel Kallis Newman in 2006. It is a daunting piece, with its massive red central square floating on a thin basis of red and an even thiner basis of yellow – a challenge for physicists! In 1954, Marla tells us, Muriel Newman met Rothko in the street and escorted him to his studio. «What a beautiful piece!», she said in front of this painting. «I just finished it last week,» he answered. And Newman acquired it on the spot for $600.

With Marla, we decided to present a picture of Mark Rothko and The Irascibles, and to mention the artists’s critique of the institution in 1950, for not showing enough «advanced American art.» But during our conversation, we also recalled the unforgettable figure of Henry Geldzahler who, with his famous NY Painting and Sculpture 1940-1970, succeeded in gathering for the Met an extensive American art collection. According to Geldzahler, there was no mistaking about the central role he envisioned for the Metropolitan in New York city! The Whitney, he argued, “emphasized perhaps too much the provincial and regional aspects of American art”, MoMA sought “to illustrate art history [with] the world’s finest collection of painting and sculpture of the period from 1870 to 1940”, “the Jewish Museum /…/ could not fulfill the need for timely exhibitions all by itself.” As for “the Guggenheim Museum, with its excellent collection of nonobjective art, it was among the daily meeting places and discussion centers for the serious artist and student who had to come to grips with Cubism.”

« I am a man » the legendary demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee, photographer: Richard L. Copley, 1968

« Why did Rothko adopt such a pure kind of aesthetics ? » Marla asks me rightly, challenging the contextual approach. I enjoy each of her questions, we’re having fun and the public too. In the audience, I see Christopher Rothko, his sister Kate, the Newman family and many friends as well, such as Christo or Kay Berman who was so close to Henry Geldzahler.

In Washington DC, as early as 1921, Duncan Phillips decided to open his private residence and collection to the public. “Instead of the academic grandeur of marble halls and stairways and miles of chairless spaces”, he wrote, “we plan to try the effect of domestic architecture, or rooms small or at least livable.” In 1960, he created a special place for his Rothko paintings, as a pause conducive to meditation, that he referred to as “a type of chapel.” Today, the Rothko Room, with its worn-out bench, has become a true inspiration for the new works and installations commissioned by the Phillips.

Such is the case for Leo Villareal’s Scramble, Wofgang Laib’s Wax Room, Bernardi Roig’s The Man of the Light, Sugimoto’s Mathematical Model 001, and it seems that no other institution has been able to expand Mark Rothko’s concern for art as an experience this way.

During our conversation, Klaus Ottmann adds two essential points : Rothko’s interest for the theater, Rothko’s passion for continental philosophy, especially Nietzsche’s. The next day, I spend many hours walking through this inspired place, filled with master pieces by Klee, Bonnard, van Gogh, Matisse, Cézanne -a model in many ways-, and I almost miss my plane to Dallas ! Just before I fly, I notice William Grimes’s piece in the New York Times’s ArtsBeat Blog, commenting on the Met conversation with Marla, and his title says it all: «With a Big Sale Looming, a New View of Rothko»…

par Annie Cohen-Solal