I Miss the Rothko Room

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Academic Affairs Klaus Ottmann on why he misses the Rothko Room.

Rick Moody recording the sound of the Rothko Room, The Phillips Collection, November 2, 2012. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

It is in during these difficult times when most of us find ourselves stranded at home that the superb stillness of the Phillips’s Rothko Room comes to my mind most frequently. Closed to the public since March 14, it has become a “stillpoint of the turning word” of which T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem Burnt Norton, where there is “neither from nor towards . . . where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards.”

Mark Rothko once told Katherine Kuh, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago: “Since my pictures are large, colorful, and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are the opposite of what is decorative; . . . By saturating the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated.”

No space I know has been more saturated by the emotive potence of color than the Rothko Room. Rothko instructed his largest canvases to be installed “so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture.” He intended his pictures to be “very intimate and human.” The intimate scale of the Rothko Room epitomizes the artist’s desire to have the viewer enter into the human dramas acted out in his paintings:

“I think of my pictures as dramas, the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.”

In his Duncan Phillips Lecture, delivered on November 2, 2012, on the heels of another apocalyptic disaster, Hurricane Sandy, novelist Rick Moody recalled the time, when, as a college student in the 1970s, he experienced a performance of John Cage’s “silent” piano work 4′: 33”. He compared the experience to going through psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. He ended his lecture with an appeal to “listen” to visual art by playing the “sound” of the Rothko Room he had recorded earlier with his iPhone.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote:

“There is a need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to produce the redemptive vision and to sit quietly in his rocking chair in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation.”

Nature is Imagination Itself

In preparation for his Curator’s Perspective tonight, Seeing Nature Curator Klaus Ottmann shares some thoughts on the exhibition.

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Installation view of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Arthur Wesley Dow, “Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona” (1912). At right, Paul Cézanne, “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1888–90)

But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination
Nature is Imagination itself.
As a man is so he sees.
                                     — William Blake (1799)

What is the power of landscapes? What is it that makes the vision of artists applied to canvas able to connect our individual lives with the cosmos itself?

Innate to any landscape are the emotions we feel in its presence. These moods and feelings are not merely in our brains, our heart, and our senses; they are also inherent to the landscapes themselves. For the ancient Greeks, each landscape evoked particular divinities. For the 17th-century English travelers crossing the Alps to Italy, it was the feeling of the Sublime, a “delight that is consistent with reason yet mingled with Horrors, and sometimes almost with despair.”

As William Blake noted in 1799, there is a special connection between Nature and the Imagination. For this exhibition, the Allen Institute for Brain Science has been investigating this special link: “People talk about how our brains are wired to see landscapes, to look at landscapes and to see what’s going on in them—so there’s something about landscapes that seems almost universally attractive,” Paul Allen has said. “It’s a way of looking outward.”

Justine Otto: Phillips Collection Emerging Artist Prize

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Artist Justine Otto with her work recently acquired by The Phillips Collection.

This month, The Phillips Collection awarded its second Emerging Artist Prize, again selected from works on display at the (e)merge art fair, which closed October 5. This year’s winner is the 40-year-old Polish-born German artist Justine Otto, whose works were on view at the Hamburg-based gallery polarraum. Phillips Director Dorothy Kosinski, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenovič, and myself selected two small paintings by the artist: O.T. (Strich) and Ophto.

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Justine Otto, Ophto, 2014. Oil on canvas, 19.7 x 15.7 inches. Copyright Justine Otto

Justine Otto’s figurative paintings show some affinities with the so-called New Leipzig School of painting, although Otto studied at the Städelschule, the prestigious art academy in Frankfurt, and lives and works in Hamburg. Like the most prominent protagonist of the Leipzig school, Neo Rauch, Otto’s paintings, most of which are based on found photographs, owe some debt to both social realist painting and surrealism. However, Otto paints in a more expressionist style, with looser brushstrokes, and her paintings mostly depict women, children, and animals, creating narratives that are both puzzling and intriguing.

The oval–shaped painting O.T. (Strich) (Untitled, Line) depicts a group of children working on a long table suggestive of a classroom. The subtitle may refer to series of lines that frequently appear in Ottos’s paintings, giving her work a touch of conceptualism. Ophto features a young woman holding up an ophthalmological instrument to her right eye while standing in a forest. Both paintings evoke the style of German photographs from the 1940s.

Otto’s works are welcome additions to our growing holdings of contemporary German art, which include recent acquisitions by Wolfgang Laib, Walther Dahn, Franz Erhard Walther, Georg Baselitz, and Markus Lüpertz.

As in the previous year, the Phillips Emerging Artist Prize was made possible by the generous support of Hank and Carol Brown Goldberg.