Frances and I just came back from a quick getaway to Washington, DC. The impetus for the trip was the exhibition of Mark Rothko’s black paintings at the National Gallery of Art. The show, “In the Tower: Mark Rothko”, consists of seven mostly black paintings that Rothko made in 1964. These paintings, all in the collection of the National Gallery, are very similar to the ones in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. In honor of that connection, the Gallery is playing a recording of Morton Feldman’s masterpiece Rothko Chapel in the exhibition space.
What a great idea. The whole thing works so perfectly. The seven paintings are displayed in the Tower Gallery, which is a single room at the very top of the East Building. As you can see in my photo above, the paintings are very plainly displayed in that room with a couple of benches to sit on and soak them in. They even moved the descriptive text and labels off to the side so as not to distract from the incredible presence these paintings have on the bare walls. My snapshot above can’t even begin to capture what these paintings look like up close: dark black rectangles floating on various nearly-black grounds. Or maybe they’re all black, but just different shades. The color differences are very subtle, but the paintings are anything but: they have a pull on you that’s like gravity. I felt like I needed to stay a certain distance to keep from falling into them.
Feldman’s music sounded beautiful in the space. They used the Philip Brett/UC Berkeley Chorus recording from New Albion, and they could have turned it up just a little bit. But then again, Feldman’s music, barely audible, goes so perfectly with these paintings, barely visible. The piece is 24 minutes long and they start it on the hour and half hour. We arrived just a couple of minutes before it was due to start, so we sat down and waited. The opening timpani just snuck in under the hum of the elevator; it was quite magical. Various people walked in and out of the space while we were there, including some school groups. I was worried that it would be too distracting and annoying, but in fact the music and paintings are so timeless that any interruptions seemed superficial and were easily ignored.
The exhibition is up until January 2nd. If you’re in DC, it’s a must-see, in my opinion. After our moving half-hour there, we skipped the rest of the museum: we just couldn’t look at other art after that. “My soul is full,” said Frances. I agreed.