Other-Worldliness: The Rothko Room, Laib Wax Room…and Japanese Tea Rooms


The Rothko Room, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Ben Resine

Intimate relationships with artworks invite us into the artist’s world, in which we are all equal.

As intimacy is essential for communication in human society, this experience is also very important for communicating and connecting with modern art; it is the intimate relationship between art appreciators and the artworks themselves that encourages viewers to think about the concepts and philosophy behind a piece.

In The Phillips Collection, a personal connection with the art is provoked by the special environment—intimate, immersive rooms. The museum also has two permanent installations which are significantly smaller than other galleries—the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room. Because these installations are set apart from the rest of the galleries—rooms entirely designed or created by the artists themselves—they evoke a unique sense of other-worldliness. Upon stepping inside, we feel the artworks and the artists with all of our senses, as if we know them very well, regardless of how much we know about the artists’ lives. This experience allows us to feel as if we are isolated from the real world and invited to the world of the artists.

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The Laib Wax Room. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

As a native of Japan, I find the experience of the Rothko Room and Laib Wax Room similar to that of a Japanese traditional small tea room. While not all Japanese tea rooms are small, some are deliberately so, for other-worldliness is the basic concept of the design. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the rooms are small in order to make people confront the tea, the teamaker, and the ritual behind creating and drinking it. The smallness of the rooms creates an intimate relationship between people and their tea.

There are also similarities in atmosphere. When a tea ceremony takes place in the small tea rooms, tension floats among the participants, which gives the ceremony a ritualistic feeling. This distinctive atmosphere can be also experienced in the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room by virtue of the closeness and the visual perception of the environments, which remind me of churches or the tombs of ancient Egypt. The solemn atmosphere often makes me both interested and hesitant to enter. My footsteps slowed as I entered these rooms—I would describe the experience as a feeling of awe.

However, there is a difference between the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms and Japanese tea rooms; the size of the entrances. Doorways into tea rooms are so small that most people need to stoop down to get in, requiring each person to bend his or her head as if bowing. As you may know, the act of bowing is the traditional Japanese way of showing respect. Performing this act upon entering shows that social class is not valid in the tea ceremony; everyone enters as equals. Although the entrances of the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms are of normal size, the same idea can be applied. Social status has no use in these artists’ worlds, as we are isolated from the real world.

Aya Takagi, Curatorial and Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern

Personal Reflections on the Wax Room: Part 4

In celebration of the Laib Wax Room‘s first anniversary as a permanent installation at The Phillips Collection, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern Rhiannon Newman, who was one of four assistants in the preparation and installation, describes her experience in a four part series.

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Photos: Rhiannon Newman

The first time I saw Wolfgang Laib’s work was during a lecture somewhere in the art department of UC Santa Cruz. It was spring, and as the professor talked about Laib’s milkstones I remember the back door was open, and the heady scent of the rain dampened redwood forest drifted in on the breeze.

The first time I worked with beeswax was in a beginning sculpture class in college a week after I called my parents and said, “Fine, be angry with me for not getting a business degree, but I’m majoring in art because I want to be happy and create for the rest of my life.” I was in that state of euphoria that you can only feel when you’re young, absurdly confident, and think you know everything. As far as I was concerned, I had traded hours of revision and dreary, crowded lecture halls for making art all day in the open, airy studios nestled above an expansive meadow that overlooked Monterey Bay on campus. I was living my dream. Our professor had given us a small project to cast something in beeswax and showed us the old discarded crockpot that she used to melt it. I remember working on a project, lying on the ground looking up through the expansive skylight at the canopy of the redwood forest, smelling the beeswax melting across the room, and feeling incandescently happy.

Now Wolfgang Laib is not on a projector screen; he is standing in front of me and softly smiling in the catering kitchen of America’s first museum of modern and contemporary art. The dinky crockpot has been replaced by a state-of-the-art stainless steel double broiler that comes up above my knees. It’s not summer in Santa Cruz—it’s February in Washington, DC and freezing rain is pouring outside. Despite all of this, the heavy scent of beeswax and the profile of Laib’s face create a bizarre sense of déjà vu.

I brought my camera to document my experience for my own personal memories. Suddenly, Curator Klaus Ottmann asks me to photograph Wolfgang working. Then, the Director of Marketing and Communications asks if they could use my photographs for media. They want to submit my photos in press kits, for articles, for promotional materials and collateral, to The Wall Street Journal, and I can’t stop pinching myself. This is the definition of Maslow’s Peak Life Experience. This is better than a dream. I take the elevator up from where the assistants have been camped in the catering kitchen with my camera to where Wolfgang is working upstairs. It’s quiet, he’s silently plastering the wax on the walls, and I make a few photographs of him in the space. There is a small part of me that is absolutely terrified of the pressure to make portraits of a famous artist, a part of me that’s jubilant at the realization that all of these amazing opportunities are happening simultaneously, but I can only think one thing.

I am creating. I am happy. I will do this for the rest of my life.

Rhiannon Newman, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern

Personal Reflections on the Wax Room: Part 3

In celebration of the Laib Wax Room‘s first anniversary as a permanent installation at The Phillips Collection, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern Rhiannon Newman, who was one of four assistants in the preparation and installation, describes her experience in a four part series.

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Photo: Rhiannon Newman

You would think that, with practice, breaking the wax into little bits would become easier, but in fact it still remains an awkward act. Unlike the other assistants working on the Wax Room, I am not an active individual. I am not a carpenter like Tyler nor live and work on farmland like Jeremiah. I don’t know very much about Rachel, but in the few conversations we’ve had she gives me the impression that she eats kale by the organic-hemp-farmer’s-market-totebag-full and probably has an exercise repertoire to match (Bikram yoga, or something). I once impulsively bought a set of dumbbells, intent on having biceps like Michelle Obama, but they now luxuriate in a dusty corner under the bed alongside a bacon-bowl maker and other impulse buys that didn’t work out. I am not strong. I am not used to manual labor, and maintaining hours of hammering takes a toll.

In the morning, I can maintain about an hour of consistent hammering before I start to fatigue. I try to maintain positive mental motivation to keep consistent and try a variety of methods. One go-to method is aggressive hammering, (i.e. picturing that one time my housemate came home from the gym, peeled off her socks and deposited them on the kitchen table, and channeling the anger that follows) produces some fantastic rage-induced results. Unfortunately, this furious wax block abuse leaves me exhausted a few short hours later. You’ve got to pace yourself with this stuff. Music almost works (two words: hammer drumsticks), but earbuds are isolating in an environment in which you want to be aware and present.

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Photos: Rhiannon Newman

Despite this initial difficulty, halfway through day three I am settled in. I have a favorite hammer and I let the repetitive motion of my hands keep a beat. My favorite photography professor and advisor in college assisted Ansel Adams for a number of years. He told me a story once about an evening in the darkroom while they were packing up after a long day of printing photographs. At the last minute, Ansel decided to make one more print. As a photographer and piano player, he preferred to use a metronome instead of a timer. The metronome had been packed away, but he effortlessly moved this print through the fixer and stop bath, through his process of dodging and burning, until it was drying with the others. It looked exactly like the other prints. “That’s because he kept the beat internally,” my professor said as he gestured towards his heart. I understand. I work with my heart too, in everything I do, and that’s how I keep going.

Rhiannon Newman, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern