Rothko: Yellow and Orange

In the room that I usually use for my personal development workshops, I have hung a print of an abstract painting by Mark Rothko. I understand the original is an the Albright-Knox gallery in New York. As with many painters, he has painted the same, or similar subject, on a number of occasions, but this version is essentially a yellow rectangle on an orange background, at least at first glance.

The reason I wanted it in the room was simply because it tends to polarise opinion. I can ask the question: is that art? And the group will immediately divide into three groups: those that think it is art, those who think it is not art and the third group. People in the third group will often say something like, ‘well … it’s not art, for me’ or perhaps, ‘it may be art for some people’ –  that kind of thing.

At first, I genuinely had no opinion either way, but I found it was a useful tool for exploring different perspectives on ideas that we all think we collectively understand. Of course, if people are disagreed about whether or not the paining is art, what it really shows is that they have different a concept of what art actually is; and that’s what the people in the third group are usually trying to point out.

Now, I have lived with this print for about ten years or so and a few years ago, it began its dialogue with me. I had just finished a workshop and was left alone, sitting in the room, not really studying the picture but simply looking. I started thinking to myself, ‘well Will, you have asked a lot of people that question, so what is your own answer?’

Initially, my answer was (by the way, they can’t lock you up for talking to yourself), well it’s just a yellow rectangle on an orange background. But after a while, I realised that there was a bit more to the background. I began to see that the orange contained another rectangular shape which was also orange. So I realised that it was more than a yellow rectangle on an orange background.

After a while, I began thinking that the yellow shape was not really a rectangle and then, that the orange shape was not a rectangle either. You might be thinking that this was not a particularly interesting discussion, but the point is that the picture was actually communicating me and the essential message was that things are often not what they appear to be. That, for me, was the message of this painting.

You may think that you don’t need to look at a Rothko painting to understand this truth, and I can understand that thinking, but the thing is that this struck me at a level beyond head knowledge. This is an example of the kind of tacit knowledge that is difficult to acquire, but never leaves us once acquired. So, I am happy to conclude that the Rothko paining is indeed art because, for me, the function of art is to enter into a dialogue with the observer.

Even very familiar things are not always what they appear to be. That is the lesson I learned from this painting and it is something of which I need to remain continually aware.

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