Friday, March 17, 2006

Homage to Matisse, by Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas, 1953.

Having mostly covered the old, I thought today I'd turn to the new - or at least to the reasonably new. I was once in an Intro to Art History class when we started talking about Mark Rothko. My professor put up a few slides and was saying a few things about Rothko's work when a girl in class raised her hand and asked, "Just how much money do people pay for this stuff?" Those are the words she used, but from her voice it was obvious that she was saying, "Why are people dumb enough to spend millions of dollars on crap like this?" I wanted to find her after class and jump her. (The picture to the left, Homage to Matisse, was sold last year by Christie's for $22.5 million, the most ever paid for a post-war painting. Yeah, that's how much they pay for "this stuff", you ninny.)

Mark Rothko, or Marcus Rothkowitz, moved from his native home of Latvia to Portland, Oregon when he was about ten years old. He remained in the U.S. for the rest of his life, and made a living as an art teacher. Once you've seen a Rothko or two, it's pretty easy to pick out his work, which I can best summarize as floating rectangles of color. Posters of Mark Rothko's works are pretty popular because they seem so simple and decorative - go by a Pier 1 or Cost Plus and I'm pretty sure you'll find a Rothko print sitting and waiting to be bought.

People who only see Mark Rothko's work this way make me sad. Rothko once said, "I am not an abstract painter. I am not interested in the relationship between form and colour. The only thing I care about is the expression of man's basic emotions: tragedy, ecstacy, destiny." One critic famously said that Rothko's paintings are like TV sets for Zen Buddhists. It's best to see a Rothko in person to understand this view, as his paintings are actually quite large - White Center, which is at LACMA, is seven feet high and six feet wide. It's difficult to explain, but you could easily sit and look at a single Rothko piece for hours on end - as simple as they seem, there is something extremely meditative about them.

Having spent years living with depression, Mark Rothko committed suicide in 1970. He slit his wrists, and was found splayed out on the floor of his studio in a pool of blood. My art history teacher said that, by killing himself this way, he made himself into one final work of art. To see a retrospective of Rothko's work, visit the National Gallery of Art website.

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