James Elkins can't quite put his finger on why we cry before Mark Rothko's paintings (James Elkins, Pictures and Tears, Routledge, 2004). Elkins gathers responses to the 15 foot high black on black paintings commissioned for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The comments were left in the visitors' book to the chapel. Elkins uses these responses as the bases of his speculations on why we cry. Is it the deep emptiness of the monochromatic squares that disturbs? Or is it that the viewer is brought before God in the face of these works? Perhaps those people whose souls are touched "see" the profundity of Rothko's own dark experience that he had when executing the untitled works. The idea of this connection between artist and viewer in the moment of perception would be Rothko's hopes for the paintings.
Ultimately, however, despite the fact that Elkins comes close to pinpointing why we cry, he doesn't quite do it. As one of those viewers who is stirred to want to prostrate before these overwhelming and unfathomable works, I know what it is to cry in their presence. And I have an idea of why, as I entered the room in which the Seagram murals were hung in the Tate Modern yesterday, I wept silently as if called to bear witness to a great, devastating truth.
Elkins talks about being with a Rothko as akin to being with someone we love, wanting to draw closer both physically and emotionally. And then, as we do move closer, drunk with the experience of breathing the same air, we feel our increasing vulnerability. In a gesture of self-protection and self-preservation, we step back, suddenly reminded of the safety of distance. This is my experience. It is my experience of being with a Rothko, and being in love, equally. I fall into the space opened for me by the canvas, and again, by the infinite depths of color within color, just as I fall into someone I love. And then, recognizing the discomfort of this intimacy, with nothing between me and the canvas, nothing between me and another's soul, I recoil. Here, in this falling, I am moved to tears. Sometimes, like yesterday, Rothko's paintings offer me a space of perfect stillness, a space that brings me face to face with nothing other than the power of who I am. These canvases have the potential to show me the stillness, thus the life inside of me, and it is a stillness so naked that there is nowhere to go but to tears.
I would argue, because it is my experience, that this invitation to open up and out to a place in me that is no longer within reach of the physical senses is what makes these paintings great. The tears and the greatness belong together. A man who sat next to me for a short while as I experienced the Seagram murals, said he didn't get it. It's a common response to Rothko's paintings. As Elkins notes, it's as common as the imperative to behave towards them as to icons of adoration. The man just didn't see the point of all these repetitions, and of course, he could have done them himself: "anyone could paint them, it's all about technique." The man was wrong. I think. These are not works that anybody can paint.
All this then makes Rothko the quintessential Romantic artist, a designation that, in the hallowed halls of modernist painting, is not to be celebrated. But the paintings don't stop where I left off. They are more complex and more ambiguous, more challenging than my impulsive tears would make them out to be. The man was right - there is technique, form, color, line, an infinite play of figure and ground, the impossibility of layer upon layer without thickness of paint, the energy and vibrations of light in tension, yet hand in hand, with darkness. These formal qualities interrupt the harmony, distract the eye and mind from the meditative slumber of self-reflection. In this, the murals are modernist par excellence. Thus, they confound expectation, and elude all attempts to make finite sense of their richness, their provocation. They are no more able to shoulder the label of an art historical category than they can be fathomed in the way the Tate Modern exhibition seems determined to do.