Rothko and Me, Sittin' in a Tree

Rothko-Orange_and_Red+ I’ve always loved modern art museums.

The minute I walk in and feel the cool openness of the halls, the minimalism, the quiet, it makes me feel like I’ve come to church – in the best possible way.

(In fact, for me it was the SF MOMA and walking the sculpture garden at Yerba Buena that was the final straw that made the camel move North over 20 years ago)

There’s something about the modern art vibe that feels like home.  The crazy, the uncertainty of it all.  The fact that the artists use titles that don’t tell you anything about their paintings except the general color.

These guys and gals have no interest in notions of right and wrong, their only interest is to show what their minds are perceiving through the lens of their hearts, fears and often their wounds.  In fact, the folks that came after Surrealists (Materialists?) took exception with the fact that the Surrealist artists represented their work as in a “dream” state.  The Materialists were like, “No. This is real. It’s form.  It’s no dream.”  It’s way out there and I just love it.

When I look at great modern art that speaks to me, it’s because of the feelings it stirs up.  Most of the time I can’t even identify the feeling.  I just know it’s there.

But today, when I walked into the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., for the first time in my life, I actually burst into tears at the sight of a painting.

Let me provide some context.  I’ve been away from my children and husband for 4 nights and five days, which is about a day or two longer than I normally allow for business travel.  During those 4 nights and 5 days, I’ve had one exhilarating meeting after another, and very little sleep in between (hotel sleep is never ideal).  So, I guess I would describe my state as satisfied, but worn and a little fragile.

So I had 2 hours open to grab something to eat and whatever else I could squeeze in.  I googled “Modern Art Museum DC” and got the Phillips Collection.  I was in huge luck: Duncan Phillips and his wife/artist Marjorie Acker were responsible for supporting and encouraging some of the most important modern artists in history.  Many of these artists were living in real poverty, and might have been lost to us were it not for the patronage of the Phillips family.  So I was inclined to feel some instant love of this place, this family, these American artists… the special exhibit was called Made In America.

All was going swimmingly as I sauntered alone through the gallery high on espresso, fresh off of an exciting workshop I gave to a women’s group, taking in the Grandma Moses, Georgia O’Keeffe, the lovely Calder pieces, and lots of names I knew I should know but don’t. I was happy as a clam at high tide.

But when I got to a sneaky little gem in that gallery called “The Rothko Room,” I fell apart.  Only 6 people are allowed at a time in the little room, and it has 4 walls, each with a painting. Big Rothkos, not the smaller ones.  I got to the very first one, Orange and Red On Red, and Mark Rothko sunk his meat hooks into my chest, and next thing I know, I’m crying quietly while the nice people of Washington D.C. tried to give me my space.

I’ve always liked Rothko’s work because it’s always a little jarring, but in this particular state of sleepless exhaustion and emotional weariness, I finally understood the great risk it took for Mark Rothko to paint this kind of thing, this Orange and Red on Red.

Imagine how early on, many of the less modern-friendly art establishment just saw blocks of color, no clear edges to them.  Even today, so many of us might just see this effort as a pretentious unwillingness to say something specific.  But I swear in that moment I could feel that painting as a kind of vulnerability, and a specificity of a mental state. A moment in time.  I mean it made me weep for Chrissakes. And I marveled at the derision and ridicule he must have experienced as he started out in the world with his rectangles and color blocks.

So why the tears?   The nearest I can figure is this:  Isn’t this our story too? The greatest risk we ever take is to show up and reveal ourselves, our ambition, our perception of how things are, and our pain and history?  But every now and then, we accept the risk of self-revelation because the experience and the expression itself is totally worth the ridicule.  Whether that risk is opening our mouths to sing, or speaking up even when emotion makes our voices shake.

This Rothko room to me was a safe haven for any of us willing to simply put “it” out there in a world full of commentary, judgment and cleverness.  And to do so without apology or any sign of backing down.

So what does one do after a good cry in public in front of a fairly familiar looking Rothko painting?  One marches down to the gift shop and purchases a cheesy replica of  Orange and Red on Red, one orders a nice bowl of soup and small cesar salad, and puts on sunglasses to hide the embarrassing signs of an emotional reaction, that’s what.  But that cheesy replica (which I will guard like a she-wolf as people try and cover it with suitcases in the overhead bins on the flight home) will remind me that risk taking and honest self expression, while it may seem shocking and new to me as I experience it in each manifestation and each moment… it is hardly new.  My boy Mark will remind me of that every time I glance at it in my office, where it will take its rightful place next to my print of Marilyn Monroe lifting barbells.

(Sorry, Mark, wherever you are.  Sometimes your artistic risk leads you into the proliferation of cheap copies that live in a museum gift shop, and then move into suburban America.  Such is the nature of risk I guess.)

But I will be forever grateful for these risk takers, and grateful for the moment of emotional rawness that lead me to shed a tear for a piece of art far away from home.  If that wasn’t on my bucket list, it should have been.