When my son was nine, we visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. He amazed me by his attention to detail and intuitive perception. He knows nothing about art and doesn’t enjoy doing it, but he was able to call attention to the tiniest of details as well as thematic elements.
At one point he sat in front of a Rothko and without my prodding began to discuss the painting of three rectangles. He talked about emotion and conflict. Ok, so he said, “It’s smiling.”
But he was exactly right! Mark Rothko’s No. 210/211 (Orange) is “smiling.” Rothko painted light into the flat orange and contrasted it with the surrounding dark orange. The proportions of the rectangles emulate proportions of the face–squinting eyes, big smile, disappearing but foundational chin. My son may not have been able to tell what exactly made it smile, but he could tell it was smiling.
Great art is great, in part, because we don’t know what makes it so great. But here’s a clue. Great art isn’t only what is, it’s also what is not.
This painting is three orange rectangles of varying sizes. What it is not, is a detailed, realistic face. Rothko painted emotion, not physical beauty. Any more detail to the face would have been distraction from the emotion behind it. So he took off the face and just painted the back light.
I never understood the appeal of Rothko until I met one in person. Now, when I meet one, I’m pulled into the space the emotion inhabits, as if it contains me and not the other way around. His paintings are bigger than life…than my life-contained-in-my-body, at least. They consume and pillow me. Sometimes they make me cry.
Rothko’s paintings speak in ways that cannot be pinpointed by color and form. He received both acclaim and criticism from his contemporaries, but they don’t determine the value of his work. As long as someone sees their own emotion in the canvas, his works are priceless.