green over blue

Let your eyes wander over the image. What comes to mind?

Some of you are scoffing, “A toddler could paint that. That’s not art,” with something akin to scorn. Resentment. Meanwhile, others have scrolled by with an apathetic cursory glance. And a few souls will stop and gaze, taking it in. It will stir something in the brain, coaxing it into a reflective…or even an emotionally demonstrative state.

Mind you, we’re not getting the full effect here. This painting, by the great Mark Rothko and currently housed (I believe) at the University of Arizona, is large…something like five by seven feet. It’s not going to fit over your fireplace. Trust me, I’ve tried. (No, I don’t care that you have twenty-foot ceilings, you show off.) I have not seen this particular work in person, but having stood in front of other children of Rothko’s mind, I can tell you that the experience is quite different than viewing a digital image on a screen. This is the case with many works of art. On one hand, the internet-enabled world has allowed for greater distribution of these images. But in doing so, we lose some of the sensory input associated with the work. Texture, size, and true colors are lost.

I mourn the forfeiture of texture most of all.  Sigh.

Perhaps some lack of appreciation that so often accompanies modern art is due to the fact that not enough people are venturing into the hushed galleries that serve as home to the greats… the hallowed halls of museums. Maybe our brains are so inundated with snappy electronic images at a mile a minute, that we cannot stop our scurrying thoughts long enough to contemplate the planes of color that Rothko so carefully applied.
For those of you who grumbled about this painting, disparaging its inclusion in an institution of art, I would like to gently point out that Rothko’s paintings have been known to provoke highly emotional responses. Open weeping. Accomplish THAT with your Crayolas. The artist himself understood this reaction quite well. He reflected, “[They had] the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” (

Perchance you are one of those people who glanced and felt nothing… no worries. On one hand, art is supposed to elicit feeling of some form. Be it derision or ecstasy. I’d rather have someone vehemently hate a piece than stroll by in apathy, as though it’s some generic but pleasant hotel décor. BUT on the flip side, not every creation is going to speak to humanity on a universal level. What causes individuals to react is highly variable, and it’s challenging to nail down the origins of emotional responses to sensory input. It’s all wrapped up in human evolution, personal experience, exposure, indoctrination, culture, and a hundred other variables that caused the undeniably awesome Robert Sapolsky to wryly remark, “It’s complicated.”

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Edgar Degas

My point, dear friends, is that if you have an amorous reaction to that vintage 1970’s painting of a clown on black velvet, then it’s art. Your response makes it so, and attributes value to something that most would consider a crime against paint. It just has to mean something to you. Yes, there are rules when it comes to the technical aspects of fine art. And no, not every schmuck can pick up a brush and land themselves in the MoMA. Both Van Gogh and Picasso made statements about the need to learn technique and perfect their execution before branching off into their most delectable creations. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,” (Picasso). But if the most technically-correct classically trained artist in the world unveils a new piece and it doesn’t prod you into feeling, you’re better off framing the clown.

That said, I encourage you to take a second look when it comes to things like Rothko’s work. Perhaps, if you can gently quiet a brain accustomed to rapid-fire imagery, sensation will begin to thread delicate tendrils into your consciousness, and you will be moved in some way by the color. The depth. The space. That will forever remain an experience unique to you. And therein lies the beauty.

One thought on “Beholder

  1. I saw it as the steam-frosted mirror image of a black capped bottle of pearlescent nail polish. Since I couldn’t unsee that, it didn’t have any particular emotional impact.


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