Reflections on Rothko Quickening

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					                                                                                                   31 March 2006


                                      Reflections on Rothko
by member, Diane Huntoon


I am always extremely happy when the Hong Kong Museum of Art brings a major artist to the city. A few
years ago, I found the Alberto Giacometti exhibition most energizing since it was the first time I had seen his
work in real life. Later, during the French Impressionism exhibition, it was a thrill to see Manet’s “The Fifer”
and other fine works from this period.


I was then teaching high school, and I sent my students to the museum for homework. My idea was that the
museum belongs to us as citizens and the earlier students learn to use it as their own, the better. So, in spite
of complaints like, “But I don’t know where it is!” or “My mom won’t let me go!” I sent them anyway
without any handholding from the school. I told them to make it fun. Take your friends and moms along, I
said, and then, afterwards, go to the café for tea and cakes and discuss what you have seen. This was the
beginning of a new relationship for them with their local art museum and it was extremely successful. They
were full of praise for their experience and delight at their own new found independence. They even brought
me presents from the gift shop – bookmarks and plastic folders imprinted with famous and lovely paintings.
They glowed with pride at completing their “homework”. All this may seem a very roundabout way of
introducing my reflections on Rothko, but I do feel it is important for all of us who get so much pleasure out
of art to encourage others to respond.


When I heard that the Hong Kong Museum of Art was offering yet another wonderful exhibition of a major
20th century artist and the chance to see some significant work, I was so delighted that I even paid to go to
the special event – I must admit that I usually go on the free day! The Friends' “First Sight" reception and
viewing on 31 March tempted me because it included not only a guided tour of the work by a docent from
the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C but also California wine and jazz. Since I am from California,
I had a comfortable feeling to begin with and I thought I might fit right in. Also, during my university studies
in the art department at the University of California at Santa Barbara, we had a strong focus in 20th Century
art history. Mark Rothko will always be one of my favourites and at that time I studied a lot of the work of
the American abstract expressionists. Another big plus about going to this event was that, since I am doing
graduate study at the Hong Kong Art School, I was eligible for a discount so I only had to fork out $200.


Attending a rather grand function like this can make you a little apprehensive. After all, sometimes you don’t
know anyone, especially if you are from another country. And there is always the language issue. But, I
reminded myself that this was an American painter coming to town and I eagerly went along to the event. I
looked forward to seeing the Mark Rothko paintings since I had seen two different exhibitions before in
different countries. The first time was in Japan where I remember seeing a huge dark maroon painting that
seemed to hum with the power of the universe. Then, about a year ago, I was in Switzerland and saw a
wonderful exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation. I know Rothko’s work is not easy for everyone to
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understand, but I was somewhat prepared. In the past, I have painted some of my own “Rothokoesque”
works that focus on soft edged abstracts. I feel I have an understanding of what he was about in his search
for an image of the “sublime.” However, there is always more to learn and new paintings to see, so attending
a new exhibition will continuously reveal something more about an artist and the art even if you are
relatively familiar with the work. I have also heard that a painting you see will say one thing to you when
you are 20 and different things again at 25 and 30, then 50 … and on and on till the end. A work of art can be
a great friend throughout life.


The first thing I did when I reached the mezzanine floor was to get some wine, pick up some food and go
find a friend. Lucky me – the first person I introduced myself turned out to be Charles Wong of the Ink
Society. Charles promotes the tradition and contemporary innovation of Chinese ink. So, I found myself in
good company and Charles and I walked through the guided exhibit together. Making comments and
exchanging thoughts made the reflective process much deeper and more interesting. We both had previous
knowledge about Rothko’s work but it wasn’t exactly the same. So, we shared bits and pieces of information.
One thing we both wondered was if jazz was the right music to complement the paintings since the focus of
Rothko’s work is on contemplation and quiet. At one and the same instant, we both came up with the idea
that the sounds (or no sounds) of John Cage might have been more appropriate. But for those just being
introduced to the world of Rothko, jazz was perhaps a better choice.


From our well informed guide I learned that Rothko taught children for thirty years even though he was
already a major personality in the art world. Some of his work was even on coloured construction paper, the
kind used in all children’s art classes. Since I am a teacher and artist, this made me feel quite good.


One exciting aspect of this exhibition was being able to see the sequence and process of Rothko’s early
development. The stages he took himself through are evident in his figurative paintings up to the broken
multiforms and on to his classical period of the large and simplified rectangular shapes. These show fields
of colour that float and hover like soft edged clouds inviting the viewer into deep contemplation.


My favourite paintings in this show are the gray monotone paintings that are precursors (for me) of the very
monumental colour fields that attain his goal of matching thought and emotion to a visual image. These
paintings are important stepping stones to and a good introduction to the work and world of Mark Rothko.
Here was an invitation to meet the work of a remarkable artist who was part of a group who transformed the
entire American art scene and put it on the world stage. Now it is necessary to seek out even more and find
out what it is all about. So I am inspired to once again revisit my own books to gain a deeper and renewed
appreciation of Rothko.


His impact and that of his friends in the 40s and his struggles become clearer and clearer when viewed with
an open mind and they make you want to learn and see more. The most important thing about art is being
able to have an authentic encounter. So, having the paintings of Mark Rothko right here in Hong Kong is a
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rare treat. Taking time to know the man deepens the encounter with his work. And likewise encountering the
work helps to know the man. I am glad the Hong Kong Museum of Art has let him pass quietly through town,
and I am grateful to the Friends for this special chance to get close to him and his work along with
like-minded people.


These are truly paintings worth reflecting on, and they prompt me to close with a quote about painting from
Rothko himself:


        "A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It
          dies by the same token … "


I am sure that my students are going to enjoy their next homework assignment as they further develop their
visual sensitivity and knowledge of art history. They themselves are bound to make some new friends.


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