The Rothko installation yesterday at the Portland Art Museum felt claustrophobic. The fabric covered faux walls created a maze of high vertical columns separated by narrow horizontal spaces, forcing the large Rothko paintings, which I’d been curious to see close up and in person, too close to one another, like pictures taped to the wall in a grade school classroom art show, parents and friends crowding in to see.
These large Rothko pieces, the ones he painted toward the end, are best viewed from a distance in proportion to the size of the piece, but everyone wanted to see them both up close and far away, myself included. I was surprised to find the paint so thinly applied on most of the large pieces. In some, I could see the weft of the canvas. Of course, I was standing too close, bringing both my amateur eye and my reading classes to the subject. One result of everyone wanting to be at once near and far, combined with the cloistered installation, was that viewers kept crisscrossing in one another’s view. But the crowded effect also created the feel of being part of an audience, which I appreciated.
Why does the museum have the feel of a church, viewers whispering as if performing the Stations of the Cross, usher-guards at every corner like nuns ready to pinch the ear of the tinkerer? Of course, my sensing a reverent whisper could have been the result of my asymmetrical hearing condition, which creates a peculiar point of view not shared by the whole audience. This distorted point of view is important, though, for doesn’t everyone suffer some asymmetrical perspective, the result of imperfect tuning, a slant eye, a limp? The Portland Art Museum has a generous age 55 senior ticket limit, and I had snuck in at the senior rate in spite of my youthful looks, the ticket-seller discretely not asking to see my ID. Once in the show though, my senior frailties began to make up for the reduced ticket price.
From a distance, immediately my favorite Rothko was a green over blue rectangle about 10 feet high and 14 feet wide (the museum info-cards inexplicitly did not show dimensions, just date and title – though most of the later Rothko pieces are simply numbered or “untitled”). From a distance, this blue-green was filled with luminous, almost phosphorescent, watery colors like we find in Monet’s water lilies, yet when viewed close up, I saw brown splotches in the green, dull beige drops on the blue, the color of ordinary dirt. I was also surprised at the way the rectangular boxes of color swirled and clouded at the edges, like a broken ocean wave, like surf. But as I browsed around, I soon realized that every combination of colors was represented, reds and blues, oranges and yellows, purples and greens, and I liked them all, and did not need a favorite.
The Rothko exhibit is chronologically arranged, and I had entered from the end. Still, the sense of development, of an expressive evolution, from recognizable shapes to abstract color fields over the course of the artist’s life was easily realized and a pleasure to see. I particularly enjoyed the early pieces, unknown to me, women on a beach, people in a subway, one small piece of several large women, the circle of women reminding me of Matisse, the female form beautiful in a near-realistic rendition of shapely fat. I looked in these early Rothko pieces for some sign of things to come. A middle piece contained just vestiges of shapes. I dared to guess at the shapes, but I’m not sure this is allowed. Rothko’s end period is laced with shadow, grays and blacks, purple stripped of its nobility. I thought of Beckett and his late characters, seniors all and barely still citizens of some bizarre place, blind and hobbling, but still trying to express what they see or feel, nothing, and what nothing looks and feels like, and what nothing tastes like, and smells like, and sounds like.
Practically ruining the entire installation, and inviting dilettante comment, into which I happily step, the museum posted a quote above the entry pavilion, something to the effect of the subject of modern painting being the painting itself. This is the reductio ad absurdum of modernist criticism, and is often applied to poetry, music, whatever. If nothing else, the Rothko paintings are about money, which suggests some attempt to persuade someone of something. This is one peculiar experience of the museum, where art gets institutionalized, its importance inflated to the size of zeppelins floating aimlessly above the heads of the crowd.