Please don’t spit


Untitled, 1963

My family’s trip to the Portland Art Museum started with a tantrum, thrown by me.

“But you said we could see Mark Rothko!” I cried. “I’m not going to the zoo, and that’s final!

It was one of those 20-something moments when you realize your Very Mature Attitude is one slip away from a ride on the teenage whaaambulance. If it’s in the name of Rothko, I say go for it.

I’m sure the (usually depressed) Portland zebras were frolicking on that sunny Saturday, but we were headed indoors. So there.


Untitled (three women and a child with mannequins), 1936/1937

It was a warm enough afternoon that stepping off the sidewalk and into the chilly air was like deflating. Once all the hot air had hissed away, our arms and legs were rubbery and useless.

I think we looked like Rothko’s early Picasso-esque figures, with their droopy eyes and flabby limbs. My family didn’t see the resemblance and quickly proceeded, hackles raised, toward the second half of the show.


Untitled, 1945

As we walked through, nudes were replaced with curly spiders that awkwardly hovered on abstract planes. Suddenly all form was gone, clearing the way for my family’s scorn.

“What a great painter,” said Sarah (16) with impressive ferocity, staring at a muddy stack of brown and black rectangles. My brother Jacob (11) took a look and, finding nothing of interest, drifted out of the gallery with my dad in tow.

Only my friend Julianna, who’d tagged along to Portland for other business, stuck around. She followed me for a bit, observing me observing the work.

“Why do people like this stuff?” she asked. I sighed and searched my brain for an answer.

The truth is, I didn’t actually know that I liked Rothko until that day. Looking at pictures and reading analyses left me just as confused as anyone. I mean, look at this picture of the Rothko Chapel and tell me you understand what the fuss is about.

I babbled to Julianna for a while about the ideas behind abstract expressionism: the effort to return painting to its essential flatness, to create landscapes that only our eyes can travel through, to focus on painting as its own subject. At some point, I realized that my art babble and vigorous gesticulation weren’t getting through.

“Just look at those colors!” I finally said, pulling her closer to one of the paintings.


Untitled, 1963 (original is on left, “clarity” filter is on the right)

Color is what it’s really about, dear reader, though I’m afraid you’ll have to meet a Rothko in person to see what Julianna saw. In the meantime, take a look at my MAGICAL THERMAL IMAGE detail from the first photo.

Look at the shifting hues, as subtle and vibrant as those of a peacock feather. Forget about all the high fallutin’ theories and just let your eyes run across the brushstrokes. Are they not euphoric?

Rothko was a master of elaborate color dances. What happens when you pair red and purple? Both colors change. Now add some green. All three colors spin in entirely different directions. Feast your eyes:


Orange on Red, 1956 (with detail)


Untitled, 1969 (with detail)

“I still don’t get it,” said Julianna.

“Does that make you feel angry? Frustrated?” I asked.

“Frustrated, yes,” said Julianna, heading over to a bench and plopping down dejectedly.

Don’t run away, oh Rothko haters. As long as you’re feeling something, that’s good. It’s okay to love to hate Mark Rothko, but don’t stop playing the game. Just try not to spit on the art.


  • Sarah Refvem is showing next week at the Laverne Krause!! Here’s my original post on her, and here’s a profile I did on her for the Queen Bee Collective.
  1. Suzi Steffen said:

    This is a terrible video, but Dar Williams has this lovely 1993 “Mark Rothko Song,” which I believe is pretty much about how a half-smartiepants feels about Mark Rothko – someone who’s just learning about art and can’t quite understand Rothko but loves Renoir. Actually, it’s more complex than that – the viewpoint shifts several times, and it shifts in time as well.

    There’s a joke embedded in the song about “uptown” – Google Uptown versus Downtown AbExers for more, though you may already know all of this.

    “Now the painting is desperate, but the crowds wash away, in a crowd of kind pedestrians who’ve seen enough today.”

    • I love this so much! I need to listen to it like 2 dozen more times to really discuss it, but I’m getting there…

      Why have I not listened to Dar Williams before this?

      Have you heard of Laura Marling? You will LOVE her.

  2. Melissa said:

    “I’m sure the (usually depressed) Portland zebras were frolicking on that sunny Saturday, but we were headed indoors. So there.” You know I love your tone, right?!

  3. Idi 'Big Daddy' Amin said:

    Wow, so even if you (rightly) think Rothko is shit, just like all the other talentless hacks who put two colours on a canvas and make £20 million for it, you still can’t win because his ‘art’ made you feel something.

    The only thing worse than modern art is modern art fans.

    • I think it’s important to have a sense of humor about modern art, lest we become modern art snobs (truly the most obnoxious of all creatures). Modern art can be dumb and banal, and its insistence on divorcing craft from art can be a cop-out for the talentless, and its high-falutin’ concepts often deflate. For these reasons, laughing at modern art is natural, and disliking it is understandable.

      BUT if we stop there, aren’t we missing something? These artists devoted their lives to this work, and others have spent decades studying it. I’m not saying you have to like it, but why not try to figure out where their passion came from? You’re not unreasonable for having that reaction to Rothko, but it kind of makes you a party pooper.

      So, as I said at the end of the post, keep playing the game! The only way you can lose is by closing yourself off. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it is kind of boring.

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