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Revisiting the Rothko Room

I visited the Rothko room at the Phillips Collection for the first time as a sophomore, during a rather self-pitying bout of growing pains. I had heard of people having mystical experiences and breaking down in tears while sitting in front of Mark Rothko’s color fields, so I thought visiting the room might be an impetus for revelation or, at least, release. I don’t want to sound like I’m spewing clichés for the sake of writing this commentary, but I experienced catharsis, and I didn’t understand why. 

The compact, shadowy alcove is tucked away in a corner of art collector Duncan Phillips’s permanent collection, as if to say “come find me here, for those who seek me.” At the time of its original curation, the paintings exhibited were Green and Maroon (1953), which Phillips purchased in 1957 from his first group exhibition, Green and Tangerine (1956), Orange and Red on Red (1957), both of which he purchased three years later, and Ochre and Red on Red (1954), which he added to his collection following the decision to create a distinct room for Rothko’s work. For the duration of his career until his premature death by suicide at age 66 in 1970, the artist avoided group shows where possible and requested separate rooms for his own work once he had grown enough in stature to do so. The paintings themselves were intentionally devoid of references to the outside world, as Rothko redirected the viewer’s focus to introspection. With the same conviction, he created meditative, hermetically-sealed rooms for his own work. Phillips endorsed this in designing the first American public Rothko room in 1960, referred to as a kind of “chapel.” 

Rothko visited the Phillips Collection in 1961 to advise its curation,

requesting for the lighting to be dimmed further, and replacing the chairs placed by Phillips with a wooden bench beckoning silent contemplation. I sat on that very bench for an hour the first time I visited the space, wearing my noise-canceling headphones. I can’t remember what I listened to; it was probably something by Ethel Cain or Radiohead, one of those songs like Crush that doesn’t have an octave of hopefulness. I obviously was trying to conjure something. Although I held a notepad and  brimmed with a whirlpool of emotion, I felt as though there was nothing for me to write. The works summoned both experience and feeling despite possessing few concrete mechanisms for me to latch on to. While the four paintings appeared devoid of content or chronological signature, I felt that they spoke volumes of history. 

For the first time in two decades, three of the original Rothko Room paintings (Orange and Red on Red, Green and Tangerine on Red, and Ochre and Red on Red) are on loan at a Rothko retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. In their place are now Untitled (Yellow, Pink, Yellow on Light Pink) (1955), No. 14 (1951), and No. 12 (1951) from the collections of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, the artist’s children and managers of the artist’s estate.

With three new paintings, the “chapel” appears to be teaching an entirely new religion. Despite having visited countless times over the past two years, the dim lighting and wooden bench (I think of it as a pew) always seems to invite me in by surprise. The new paintings are brighter than the originals, but not necessarily happier. In Mark Rothko, Christopher Rothko’s intimate monograph exploring his father’s career, he unravels the mystery of why people cry in front of Rothko paintings, arguing that it cannot be because of the artist’s use of color because “viewers cry as often before the light works as they do before the dark ones.”

Untitled (Yellow, Pink, Yellow on Light Pink) shocks me with electric-chair acid yellow and muted pepto-bismol pink. The borders of its color fields are more suffused than those in his other works, so it appears celestial, incandescent and hard to discern like the sun or a burning comet. Picking apart Rothko’s immaterial brushstrokes is a sisyphean task, but it seems as though the artist has cast bright whites throughout which lend to the work’s luminosity. An employee at the Phillips Collection whispered to a friend that the work made her feel “peace” – I disagree. The unexpected greens and blues in the underpainting nullify any sentiment of complacency, instead evoking a blinding purity that demands reverence. Looking at it is like looking at a snowy mountainscape on a bright day - blinding, but you don’t want to turn away. Is it excessive to add that I felt like I was observing myself in the womb, caught in my slumber by the voyeurism of an ultrasound machine? I don’t know, but Christopher Rothko did like to describe his father’s works as mirror-like, as a corrective to a popular analogy that compares them to windows. While windows look out, the color field paintings are anything but transparent. Rothko’s sectionals are partitioned off from the outside world both literally, because they are often staged in windowless rooms, and figuratively, as their rich layers of color give the illusion of endless mass. This is why they seem to reflect back at us the feelings and reactions we project onto them. 

To say No. 14 (1951) and No. 12 (1951) just face each other from opposite long sides of the wooden pew would be doing the curator, and the artist, an injustice. I could imagine the two paintings, nearly identical in height and width, as twins resting on either side of their mother (Green and Maroon) and sharing secrets that I wasn’t privy to. The dark mauve of No. 14 reflects No. 12’s sweeter magenta, and the blood orange in No. 12 is mirrored with a darker shade of the hue in No. 14. Ashy acid yellow is traced delicately into (or perhaps under?) the deep browns and purples of the darker No. 14 while it engulfs the center of 12. The distinct opacity of the two works set them apart clearly as two of the “new” works. By contrast Green and Maroon, the only piece remaining from the previous installation, and the “old” works which are temporarily on-view in Paris, are hazier and marked by a translucence that makes it nearly impossible to separate the outermost layers from underpainting. The previous works created the illusion of a black hole, bending time and inviting you to pause for longer. These two appear static in comparison, but their opacity does not render them less successful but instead just crystallizes a completely different aspect of human consciousness. 

I once brought someone to the Rothko room on a first date with the hope that a shared revelatory experience would forge closeness, rendering me unforgettable. In retrospect, this may have been perceived as a laughably desperate trick that could have even pushed him further away. I was motivated by a conviction that, for some reason, men love Rothko. My father, a man of few words, would often say gruffly, hurriedly, that Rothko was the greatest painter who ever lived. It may seem uncharacteristic for a man who often equated sappiness with spinelessness to love an artist whose work is so inextricable from tenderness. But because the color field paintings summon introspection in reference-less forms free of iconography or anything easy to speak plainly about (it is notably difficult to find the words to describe these canvases) even the most brusque of people can be ardent believers while eschewing soupy sentimentality. 

My flimsy ploy to make a boy fall in love with me over Rothko fostered a romantic date, but it certainly didn’t incite shared revelation. Rothko is best appreciated in solitude, perhaps because he believed his painting should create a dialogue with the viewer - without a third party. Klaus Ottmann, the curator emeritus of the Phillips Collection, recalls that Rothko would unironically refer to his paintings as “dramas.” The artist had a background in theater and always wanted to become an actor, and saw these paintings as “a stage for human concerns and human dialogue, as drama, unlike narrative, inherently involves interaction.” Just like how audience chatter distracts from an epic play, Rothko’s paintings are emotional conversations with the viewers when they are alone. Viewing the works with a guest in town has never been as impactful for me, because the other person is an associative tether to the material world, something that Rothko sought to avoid in his fully abstract canvases. 

Green and Maroon, the only remaining painting from Duncan Phillips’s original collection, is the magnum opus of the room. The painting is the most imposing of the four works and arguably the most “Rothko,” with deep teal and merlot hues creating the illusion of a bottomless chasm, so hypnotizing it is almost dizzying. While borders are essential to defining the color fields in his other works, green and red float weightlessly above the pewter and stormy blue border hues. Watching the paint nearly hover out of the painting and take shape in the air in front of me, it becomes obvious why Rothko’s work is regarded as quasi-religious. I am dumbfounded, and even disturbed, at how with so little paint (the underpainting is even more visible in this work than it is in the others) and with such immediate, seemingly obvious forms, the artist has created an entire world. Despite its illusory qualities, the painting is far from the work of a trickster - although often associated with pop artists, there are no cheap thrills and nothing derivative within Rothko’s work. In Mark Rothko, Christopher writes that much like his father himself, who was a man of solitude, the paintings are most content and most harmonious in their own company. Rothko was sensitive to their needs, as if the color field paintings were sentient beings. I would go so far as to say that if you spend enough time spellbound within the room, it wouldn’t surprise you if one of them started breathing. 

 The Rothko Rooms stand tall and enclosed as “small universes emanating from his own vision.” 

Untitled (Yellow, Pink, Yellow on Light Pink) (1955), No. 14 (1951), and No. 12 (1951) from the collections of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, will be on view at The Phillips Collection through March 31, 2024.

All image credit attributed to the Phillips Collection and Flikr.


Camilia Fateh is a senior in the College studying English with minors in Visual Art and Journalism.


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