Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. I’m seeing this beautiful, luminous Mark Rothko. It’s “No. 210/No. 211 (Orange),” and it dates to 1960.
Dr. Margi Conrads: [0:16] It is hard for me to verbalize my relationship with this painting. It just makes me want to be quiet. It surrounds me even though it is a flat plane where these orange rectangles and squares hover and vibrate against this lavender-y but dark purple field. It makes my whole body feel like it’s vibrating.
Dr. Zucker: [0:44] Quiet, contemplative, is exactly how I feel. It almost feels like an intrusion that we’re speaking in front of the painting. There’s something about the horizontals of the forms that make everything feel as if they’re moving ever so slowly, almost the way that clouds form and un-form.
[1:00] The way in which those forms fill the space but then push out forward and then recede also simultaneously back into the pictorial space is slow and gentle, and densely aesthetic.
Dr. Conrads: [1:12] How can something painted so flatly…though we see a lot of brush strokes in it, it creates this deep illusionistic space.
Dr. Zucker: [1:21] It really seems to be basically two colors, and yet each of those colors are seen infinitely modulated. There are so many yellows and oranges within those spaces and then even the purple that functions both as a space that the orange can occupy but then somehow also as a frame, it’s got an infinite set of variations.
Dr. Conrads: [1:42] Rothko, by the time he painted this in 1960, had been painting abstractly for 20 years, and yet, in that practice, there’s similarities but no picture is the same. In this particular one, you see these shifting shapes.
[1:59] There are places where the orange is more densely painted and other places where it’s really thin so that, because it is painted entirely purple underneath that, you also get the sense of a veil.
Dr. Zucker: [2:12] It’s really instructive to look at the decisions that Rothko made. I find especially intriguing the edges of the orange, the way in which they feather and the complexity of the relationship that he draws between the purple and the orange.
[2:25] This idea that pure color and pure form could resonate in a way that was spiritual, that was profound, was central to some of the thinking of the Abstract Expressionists, and I think especially important to Rothko. The idea that this was a painting that would elicit deep human emotion.
Dr. Conrads: [2:43] In the mid-20th century, there is less conversation around spirituality in art, and Rothko was, throughout his career, concerned with thinking about painting and its relationship to the spiritual.
[3:00] Not being connected to any kind of specific religious dogma, but rather that much larger idea about there being something larger than us and where do we or how do we stand in relationship to it.
Dr. Zucker: [3:15] This is painting that develops in the postwar era, at a moment when society had some fundamental questions in front of it. This was the aftermath of the Holocaust. This was the aftermath of atomic weaponry.
[3:24] This is a moment when important philosophical questions are being asked, and Rothko is confronting those, but is not using the visual vocabulary of a past era. He’s not showing angels. He’s thinking about how is it possible to touch the spiritual in our modern age.
Dr. Conrads: [3:39] Thinking about the year of this painting, 1960, this is a fiery orange painting. This is just as the civil rights movement and so much activism was literally catching fire. I think that we can’t ignore that combination and its possibilities of being on Rothko’s mind.
Dr. Zucker: [4:03] This is a spiritual and transcendent painting, but it is very much a product of this moment.