How to look at a Rothko

The day I learned how to read a Rothko was the day the art world grew that much more challenging and unfortunate.

In the past, I found it hard to justify Rothko's work on all accounts. The works did not pair colors well. The colors were not remarkable in their own right, either: muddled yellows, putrid greens. But when I spent two hours in front of No. 16 (1960), my eyes clung to the work, but my ears were elsewhere. People know Rothko. They know that name. They've seen a work in every museum. And in every museum they feel nothing. They cannot explain, truly, why Rothko is great. I know this because not one person in two hours stood for more than thirty seconds in front of No. 16 (1960) or No. 3 (1953), hung adjacent. You cannot know Rothko, nor be entitled to remark on his work, without spending a minimum of fifteen minutes in front of a work. It is not about color. I could not help but bristle in humor when a teenage girl approached the painting and remarked, "He's the color guy." Later, more people remarked on the color, even considering the brushstrokes. A boyfriend tried to impress a girlfriend by centering her in front of No. 3 and explaining the power of the contrasting colors, but she soon walked off. He did not look at it at all. And he was wrong. She didn't enjoy it because he didn't know what he was talking about. If only the Rothko works had eyes of their own.


   You hate Rothko because you don't know what it means. You're allergic to the static nature. Know this: I have spent many hours parked in front of a number of works by Rothko, now known as the field paintings. I am known to dart past them quickly, I did not dwell on them. I did not know them. In retrospect, I realize many things. Rothko is not a colorist. Here are some rules to guide you through a Rothko:


  1. Stand exactly three feet from a Rothko. Rothko himself was wrong on this note, he said to stand 18-inches away from the work. You cannot control the work at this distance. Forthcoming: an exact equation that pairs dimension of any given Rothko with the appropriate distance away from the work.
  2. Initially, there's nothing on the edges of a Rothko, so do not appear inquisitive about the edges of a Rothko. Do not pretend to examine them. 
  3. Do not look at the sides and do not look at the corners.
  4. You must look into a Rothko, not at it.
  5. You must not focus. Do not try to focus your eyes. Let the colors go where they must.
  6. Start in the center of the work. Let your eyes melt the color. It is like butter, it is like a sponge. The background is the pan. Soon it will sizzle.
  7. Your vision will become increasingly fragmented. The compartamentalized colors will soon unleash. The bottom will drop out and flood the canvas. This miracle will never get tiring. It is a phenomenon that will make you want to look at every Rothko in the world a hundred times over each.
  8. You've grown increasingly familiar with the work. Allow your eyes to shift around the canvas but not gain focus. In fact, my findings have shown that even if you attempt to focus, it is not easy. You must recalibrate your eyes by looking away. Even closing them does not aid in exiting a Rothko.
  9. Toy with the power of the color you've been calibrated to. Look down, look left. Absorbing the colors will let them do things you cannot imagine. 
  10. Look at the upper portion. Elements of a Rothko will vibrate or seem to enlarge; undulate or hover. Let this happen. You have not looked at a Rothko properly until you've smiled at least once. This is awesome in the most classic sense of awesome is. It is awe. It is addicting to know Rothko.