Children have an uncanny ability to transform fleeting moments into unbelievably exaggerated lengths of time. Strangely, these elongated lapses remain embedded in our memories, even into the logical realm of adulthood. I vividly remember being dragged by mother through the old contemporary wing of the Nelson-Atkins Museum on weekends and afternoons. As a six or seven-year old, I think I dealt well regarding the number of museum visits I made. With the zoned-out valiance of an easily amused child, I wandered around and waited for her, my mother, an artist, who should have lived during the New York School, and whose abstract paintings would, sadly, never outsell the garish barn watercolors in the local galleries of Parkville. As long as we visited the corridor of recreated period-style rooms before leaving the museum, I was okay with sitting on any black, leather bench and staring off into space. One afternoon, I found myself staring into a dark, square void of a painting and thinking in child-appropriate terms, "What the hell is this?"
"This" was Untitled No. 11 — a Mark Rothko.
Nothing in my minor existence had prepared me for a painting like No. 11. Although I grew up around art, adored papier mache and huffed new boxes of Crayola crayons, my experience with Rothko was a full-fledged mind-blower. In retrospect, viewing the Rothko was the first of only a handful of recondite moments I have had in my life. I was enveloped by the nearly-black brown and carried into what I can only describe as a dark-lightness. I do not recall any breakthrough thoughts related to the painting or art in general, but I do know that I couldn't stop thinking about it, even in the recreated period-style rooms, and even after we left. On return visits, I was only interested in going back to the black leather bench and getting sucked back into Rothko's world.
For something so abstract, I wasn't intimidated by Untitled No. 11. If anything, it was easy and strangely inviting to me; somehow unpretentious, I remember thinking that the painting itself wasn't trying too hard or suggesting a particular point of view. Kids like that.*
Rothko's work moves without moving, and that's what I love about it. With each visit, each viewing, it is impossible to see the work in the same way. Brooding colors play games with whatever personal mood you bring into the gallery. The longer you look, the more you are drawn into the slow, deliberate flux within the canvas.
Untitled No. 11 stuck with me, but I didn't get sucked back in until 15 years later, when I was in a room filled with his works at the Tate Modern. If a person can have an experience like mine as a child with one of his paintings, being surrounded by eight, large works was overwhelming. "This afternoon, I am sitting in a room filled with Rothko's," I wrote in a journal entry from the day. "My stomach churns like the paintings, and my head has filled with thick syrup that moves with what I see before me."
One year later, I was back again. Only now, I walked through rooms filled with Rothko's color field paintings for the Tate Modern's retrospective on the artist. Maybe it was because I was not sitting while viewing most of the works, or perhaps the constant stream of viewers left me distracted, but my experience was more grounded this time. I was moved by the series, and for transient moments I was drawn into certain canvases, but never in that syrupy way.
Certain smells, imagery and foods conjure memories of childhood. A friend told me that just thinking about the cinnamon rolls her grandmother once made nearly brings her to tears. My association with Mark Rothko evokes memories of inscrutable moments — memories of inexplicable, personal growth and imagination. Although I cannot remember my thoughts while viewing his works (journal entries help), I can recall the feelings afterward because they have remained with me, especially Untitled No. 11.
* Rothko began writing a book he never finished that compared the work of modern painters with children's art.