In the Rothko Room, You Might Burst Into Tears

Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann is author of  The Essential Mark Rothko. He’ll share his insights on the artist in a lecture tomorrow evening. Rothko is getting the spotlight in D.C. this season with John Logan’s Tony® Award winning play Red at Arena Stage. In anticipation, Klaus recently sat down with Phillips Communications Director Ann Greer to talk all things Rothko. The interview will be published in Arena Stage’s program book. Read a preview here.

Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Photo (c) Robert Lautman

Ann:  Why do you think Mark Rothko looms so large in the ranks of 20th century artists?

Klaus:  He was a unique artist in the way he dealt with color. He was very deeply involved in philosophy, religion, and he had an unusual ability to make his paintings communicate with the public. It was a well-known fact that people used to burst out in tears in front of his paintings, many times. I think he had a very emotional and very deep effect on the viewer – one very few artists have been able to have.

Ann:  How do you think that sort of “alchemy”–if I can use that word–how does that happen?

Klaus:  Well, of course, it didn’t happen overnight, he developed slowly into it. But, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he was deeply religious, he was very philosophical. It had to do with the fact that he very strongly believed that his paintings should communicate–that there was a dialogue going on. It has also to do with his background in theater, he always wanted to become an actor, and he believed his works to be plays, he believed his works were created to be emotional conversations with the viewer–similar to what a play can do . . .

. . . he kept thinking about the three dimensional space. That’s something I think is very important. It’s very clear to me when I sit in the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection.

Ann:  Of course, Klaus is talking about the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection, which was actually the first public space devoted exclusively to work by Rothko. Rothko was very involved with Duncan Phillips in planning the dimensions, the light levels, the bench.

Klaus:  There you are very close to the paintings, there are four paintings, one on each wall of the room, you are surrounded by them. You sit on the bench that Rothko put in the room, and you can feel the presence of the paintings. It’s not just an optical, visual presence, but an emotional presence. This is what he always wanted. He wanted the paint to come out and almost hover in the space in front of you and to touch you. So, he was always thinking of this three dimensional space like a stage. In a way, the Rothko Room is almost like a stage with four sides–you are in it and a part of it, and you are interacting with the other actors; you become part of that emotional play that he created. So, he never gave up that idea; the theater was always there, and it was always the framework that he used to conceptualize and make his art. To me, that’s very, very important.

Organic Juxtapositions: Wolfgang Laib

Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art Klaus Ottmann pours milk onto Wolfgang Laib's Milkstone. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

Wolfgang Laib initially pursued a medical career path. He completed his medical studies, but  came to believe  that natural science could not define the world in what Laib believed was its true form. After leaving science, Laib first began to produce what he called “milkstones,” one of which was exhibited at the Phillips in March 2011. Laib creates elemental sculpture that captures organic substances such as milk and places them in the context of smooth, geometric shapes. The milk used in his milkstones, a substance that sustains  life, must be replaced ritualistically each day. Laib intentionally uses geometric shapes that have already been given meaning by a certain culture to create a fascinating juxtaposition of natural elements and man-made geometry. The reflection that occurs on a milkstone’s surface is entirely reliant on the natural light coming into the environment and the space that surrounds the art piece. Laib maintains that his art is not about nature but about the combination of organic forms, man-made objects, and how the viewer chooses to perceive them.

At this Wednesday’s Conversations with Artists talk with Laib, I am interested to hear his point of view on the ritual of replacing the milk and what he feels this might signify to the viewer. The artist works not only with milk but also with pollen, rice, and beeswax. Hopefully he will discuss the uniquely participatory aspect of his art.

Rachel Milkovich, Marketing Intern

Becoming Rothko: Edward Gero in the Rothko Room

Actor Edward Gero is blogging about his process of preparing for the role of Mark Rothko in John Logan’s Red, which opens at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in September and then here in town at Arena Stage early next year. Here, Gero shares his experience of our Rothko Room and discussion with Rothko-expert and Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann. Follow the rest of his journey as it unfolds.  

(left) The Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Max Hirshfeld. (right) Actor Edward Gero. Photo: Scott Suchman

I still am not sure what happened today. I can tell you the narrative, but I am not sure what the effect of the event is yet. Today I went to meet the new Curator at Large of The Phillips Collection, Klaus Ottmann, who was gracious enough to spend a few hours with me in the Rothko Room and at lunch talking about the artist and his art.  I came early, not knowing what to expect, but very excited to spend my first time in the first of the “Rothko Rooms.” It was installed in The Phillips Collection in 1960. The room and the four paintings were the first room ever dedicated to a single artist, which has become commonplace now, but at the time was quite the acknowledgment of Rothko.  Rothko himself consulted with the museum about the space, chose the bench for the space, and saw it completed. It is the only room he did see, unlike the much larger Rothko Chapel. He committed suicide before that project’s completion.

I was too excited to wait in the cafè, so I went immediately upstairs to the room.  I entered a very small space with off-white walls, four large canvasses, dim lights, and a simple wooden bench in the center. It was very theatrical. The lighting made for a hushed environment, like entering a meditation room. The paintings were large and imposing, dominating the space.

Having read that Rothko hoped that one would spend time with the paintings, I sat down quietly and hoped that the room and the works would start acting on me. They did.  Continue reading