Mark Rothko, "No. 37/No. 19 (Slate Blue and Brown on Plum)," 1958. Oil on canvas, 95" x 90."
I recently went back up to the Ab Ex NY show at MoMA, this time with two groups of young students from Parsons.
This Rothko was one of the highlights of the show for me; I don't recall having seen it before. The scale relationships of the parts to the whole are not typical of Rothko (the clouds seem small-ish) and those wide margins on the top, left, and right, give the picture an unusual level of openness and expansiveness. It was big, misty and spooky, and I loved it.
And my students loved it - not just this picture, but the show as a whole. Generally, when I take groups of freshmen to a museum, I expect a certain amount of texting, a certain amount of eye-rolling, a little bit of insouciance and indifference. But these kids were looking, and looking hard; asking me questions, reading the supporting material and so on. I was frankly a little taken aback.
There are all kinds of conclusions I could draw from this, all kinds of theories I could posit. Maybe they were caught off-guard by the emotional frankness of the work after having been numbed by the relentless ersatz emotion of television, especially reality tv (which they watch a lot of). Maybe they were struck by the rough and raw surfaces and the big scale, since most of the myriad of images they apprehend each day are mediated by the screen in terms of size, surface and duration. Maybe they were surprised that there was no ironic distance whatsoever - a condition that not only permeates much art since post-modernism, but is also the natural emotional defense system of the average teenager. Who knows, who knows?
I loved it that they loved it, and even though I might be reading way too much into it, I must say that it gives me a sunny sense of optimism.
And here's an open request to Parsons Foundation sections FF and G: please feel free to comment on this post, I'd really like to hear your thoughts on the matter.