Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Absorbing Black

This Saturday past I spent the afternoon at our National Gallery of Art in downtown Washington, D.C., a last weekend for such visits before crowds of welcome tourists begin making seeing impossible until after Labor Day.

My husband and I stopped first to see "The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1660 - 1700" (closing May 31), an exhibition of 22 works — images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints — rendered by the hands of Diego Velazquez, Francisco de Zurbaran, and other exceptional oil painters and the sculptors Juan Martinez Montanes and Pedro de Mena, whose polychromed (painted in many colors) wood carvings, some of which include human hair, ivory, cloth such as gilded linen, cord, glass, and other ornamentation, can leave one breathless, so natural do the figures seem. The NGA beautifully lights these masterpieces, and if you linger long enough before some of them — Zurbaran's Christ on the Cross, for example (see image at left, from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago)— it's possible to forget for a few minutes that you're in a gallery and not a sanctuary. 

There's an undeniable austerity about these artworks and yet they overflow with emotion; their placement by their painter in a field of dense black lit by a single shaft of bright light, their contemplative and suffered expressions, their physical torture realized in trickles of blood from face and hands and feet move you as much as make you want to turn away. Their very blackness is compelling.

For exhibition highlights, go here. A very interesting video about making a polychrome is here. To read or download a copy of the exhibition brochure, go here (for the Spanish version, go here).

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From this gallery we walked to the Tower, where is installed for viewing until January 2, 2011, "In the Tower: Mark Rothko". We specifically sought out these paintings, which Rothko made in 1964 preparatory to his work on a Catholic chapel in Houston, now the non-denominational Rothko Chapel, commissioned by wealthy art patron and collector Dominique de Menil

My experience of these marvelous black-on-black paintings is the same as my visit many years ago to the Rothko Chapel: awe. To stand (or sit) before them — these huge canvases of rectangles within rectangles, their edge-blacked reddish-brown and purple color fields seemingly floating — takes patience, and in the patience is the seeing that comes from allowing oneself to be dominated by their color and what Matisse called black's "color of light".  The black of these paintings is not just a black into which one metaphorically falls or the black that is dismissed as the product of some form of deranged view of life. Rothko knew what he was after. These paintings' black has surface; you can see, depending on the angle of viewing and the strike of light from above or to the side or straight-on, the brush strokes, the sheen, the matte, I would even say the effort to achieve effect at once as meditative-inducing as it is impelling. You have to look across and also up and down, and when you do, you begin to notice the black at the edges of the canvas isn't black but violet-hued or red-tinged. And it's expansive, the way it bleeds into the rectangle within it, gradually minimizing that block of color until you begin to look out again and your focus re-fixes itself on the geometry.

Image above right: No. 7, 1964, mixed media on canvas; overall 236.4 x 193.6 cm; NGA's collection; Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation; © 1997 by Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel.

The printed pamphlet for the show notes that "these little-known works have often been seen as tokens of the depression and illness that began to plague Rothko [after 1961] . . . even as harbingers of his suicide in 1970." I can understand how this kind of description might be ascribed, particularly knowing that Rothko killed himself. All this black produced something else for me, though: the quiet and heart-filling joy that can be had by simply sitting and looking and being moved to let go.

Playing in the gallery where the black paintings hang is Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel recording from 1971. In the gallery preceding are earlier paintings from among Rothko's figurative and surrealistic works of the 1930s and 1940s, respectively. These, in all honesty, held little interest for me, perhaps because I'm drawn more to abstract art. They do, however, show something of Rothko's early use of black paint. A brief (10-minute) film narrated by NGA curator of contemporary and modern art Harry Cooper) loops continuously in the same gallery, and is worth viewing (it's also available here). My one quibble is that the film is mounted just outside the huge elevator that disgorges viewers directly into the gallery space.

A slideshow of the exhibit begins here. In no way do photographs do justice to these paintings.

Additional resources include these biographical notes, in-depth study, NGA's own considerable collection of Rothko works, and information about a catalogue raisonne in progress.

* * * *  *
I do my sketching and observing with the camera.
~ Allen Ginsberg, 1993

We wrapped up our visit by returning to the West Building to view "Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg", which continues through September 6. More than six dozen photographs are on exhibit; they range from Ginsberg's 1950s "drugstore" prints to his well-known portraits of himself and writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, among others, to late 1980s-1990s snapshots of friends and lovers, some of whom clearly were in ill-health. Ginsberg annotated virtually every photograph, and his hand-written inscriptions directly below the images  inform and give us perspective and viewpoint and humor. There's an exuberance in these photographs and also a wide-eyed observation. As I remarked to my husband on leaving the show, Ginsberg captured times the likes of which we'll never see again.

If you can't visit the show, do the next best thing and view the slideshow while listening to "Art Talk: Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg": Part 1, The Early Photos, and Part 2, Revisiting and Reprinting. To see the NGA's collection of Ginsberg's work, go here.

The gallery sales shops, by the way, are selling an impressive collection of Ginberg's poetry and other written work, along with an exhibition catalogue.


M.L. Gallagher said...

Painting tone on tone is very very challenging. I once spent hours attempting to pain a canvas a deep blue -- I am in awe!

Thanks for sharing.


Kathleen Overby said...

I feel like an innocent, ignorant virgin most times I visit here. It is impossible to come away unchanged, unknowing from the experience. I love seeing through your heart and mind and eyes. A window into a new world.

Anonymous said...

i like your story of the black on black.

The Storialist said...

Thank you for these links! You are a wonderful curator :).

I love Rothko's work, and the black-on-black ones are fascinating to me. It's interesting how quickly the eye (and the brain?) wants to interpret the color black as depression, emotional darkness, death. It's also the color of space, of exploration and the unknown. Thank you for the reminder!

I'm reading the book A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca is so beautiful and if you haven't read it, you simply must (you would love it). One of the chapters is on blue as the color of distance and desire. Fittingly, the book was recommended to me by a painter.

Melissa said...

I grew up in churches that had no images. Only when I moved to Texas in my younger years and visited the older Spanish missions did I see Jesus on a crucifix as you have posted here. Any I had seen elsewhere in passing were all one colour, such as gold, with little expression. They were mostly symbolic. The Jesus images I found in the missions were haunting. I found them scary at first. I wanted to sit and look at them for a while. I suppose it is the 'what were they thinking' thoughts i have. I was never able to get them out of my mind.

Thank you for sharing these, and the Rothko black on black. Painters make these things look easy, but this, this is not easy.

Maureen said...

One of the most telling aspects of this painting is the absence of narrative detail. Viewers have nothing else to look at, and so much focus on Christ on the Cross, on His sacrifice.

According to notes about the painting, it was created for an arched alcove above a chapel altar in a Dominican friary (San Pablo) in Seville.

It is a remarkable painting.

Maureen said...

I meant to type ". . . and so must focus. . . ."


Maureen, I'm just tiptoeing back into blogland this week as I've been otherwise engaged for the past month. THank you SO much for the lovely bit of research and film clips on Mark Rothko - he and Milton Avery - are two of my favorite artists and seeing the richness of both Rothko's pieces (and the mention of his friendship with Avery) were really food for my soul. It is so heartbreaking to think of the many artists (persons) who live in the darkness of depression that eventually causes them to escape into suicide. Such a loss - if he could only have known then what a legacy he left with his works. Again, thank you for this lovely post regarding your visit to the National Gallery!


Glynn said...

Maureen, you love for art, and the vividness you pour into your writing, transports us right into the gallery. I'm constantly amazed -- and more than a little in awe.

moondustwriter said...

would love to spend the day in a museum with you - would be a treat. Grew up in them - feel so at home with your "walk-thrus"