Rothko in his 69th Street studio with Rothko Chapel murals, c. 1964

Rothko in his 69th Street studio with Rothko Chapel murals, c. 1964

In this weekly feature, we will share our ideas for what you can do “off-campus” while the museum is closed. This week’s entry comes from Nicole M. Roylance, Coordinator of Public Education and Information.

It has been a good season for the late Mark Rothko. In May, one of his works sold at Sotheby’s for $31.4 million. This past Sunday, the Broadway play based on this Seagram’s Building commission, Red, was awarded six Tony Awards, including Best Play. The sale and the play have encouraged a renewed interest in Rothko and his work. Generally, I grow quickly weary of whatever artist has become new again. However, I have been enjoying the interviews and press coverage that has been given about the artist over the past few weeks. Even though I have been thinking about Rothko more than usual lately, I was still surprised by my experience of his work at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

I am in Washington for the National Museum Publishing Seminar. Before the conference started, I had some time to wander the National Mall with seemingly every eighth grade class trip. For the most part, my museum experience had been very loud and very crowded. Wandering into the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, I was immediately relieved to find wide open spaces and quiet. My gallery wandering eventually led me to a set of tall, winding stairs. As a klutz, stairs make me nervous and require more concentration than they probably should for me. So I was absorbed in not falling as I wound my way around and up. My mind was completely focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

Mark Rothko, No. 6 (?), 1964, Oil and mixed media on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation

Mark Rothko, No. 6 (?), 1964, Oil and mixed media on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation

When I arrived at the top, my mind refocused on seven black canvases by Rothko installed in a sparse room. Also, there was the faint sound of almost heavenly ringing (which I first assumed was some effect of the building or perhaps I had reached some level of museum grace). The canvases are stunning and beautifully installed. The heavenly ringing turned out to be a recording of Morton Feldman’s work commissioned for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The entire effect, perhaps magnified for me because I was coming from crowded, loud galleries, was out of this world.

If you are in Washington, DC before January 2, 2011, I would encourage you to see In the Tower:Mark Rothko. The exhibition also includes a short film about Rothko and some of his early figural canvases. It is worth the climb.

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