Modern art and me

Last week my family and I had dinner with the family that hosted us in East London for the summer in 2002. It was great to reconnect and we had joyful and far-reaching conversation. At one point we were talking–I’m not sure why–about art. And I was reminded yet again that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who like modern art, and people who don’t. Or at least, people who say they do, and say they don’t. (I’m guessing there are a whole lot of people like me who a) like everything and b) don’t know beans about art.)

In any case, the conversation spurred me to get past my general aversion to museums, especially popular museums in large, foreign cities, and today I made the pilgrimage with thousands and thousands of others across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern. It was late in the day which did not deter the crowds one bit, but it meant that for me, I started, rather than finished, with tea. I sat in the comfortable cafe with a cuppa and a coupla scones and looked at map to plan my visit, knowing that I would poop out after an hour, tea or no tea.

millenium bridge

was so jazzed by the art and the space that I lasted three hours instead of one. It was truly splendid, and If you want see a whole bunch of images, here are some of the photos I took.

But I was really there for Mark Rothko. Mark and I have a special relationship. For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely familiar with his work, familiar like:  “Oh yeah, that guy who does those big huge squares.” 

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When my father died in 2005, that changed. I was in a whole new world of hurt. In the airport heading home from Philadelphia to Portland for the last time, I had a task to look forward to: I had volunteered to write with the news of my father’s death to people who were around when I was a kid, but with whom my father had lost touch over recent years. In the airport bookstore I found a box of cards by abstract expressionists. I never liked them before. I never understood non-representational painting. I wanted art to refer to something I could name, and to make the familiar more so.

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But now, in the uncharted territory of grief, where I couldn’t put words to anything, these artists were saving my life. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman. How did I ever live without them? Their illogical order of things accompanied me during that journey, and I was able to write over and over again in the airport coffee shop and then on the plane:  it has been a long time since we’ve been in touch; I am guessing you have probably heard by now but I want to be sure you know that my father died. You were such an important part of his life when I was growing up…. Through this repetition I came to understand what, in my work, I have told others over and over again: the little tasks right after a death keep us from falling apart, and keep us connected to one another, to the living. And now I could tell people about how Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock somehow–as mysterious as death, as mysterious as Eucharist–became the map with which I navigated the way back to myself without my father.

nortonSo visiting the Tate Modern was, in a way, a pilgrimage to visit my man Rothko, who has a whole room there of paintings which he himself actually gave to the Tate, and there’s a great story that goes with them. (Some of you probably already know it.) In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a set of murals for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the Seagrams Building. He found the murals were darker than his previous work: maroon, dark red, and black. He eventually realized that they were too dark and serious to be the backdrop of a restaurant, and withdrew from his commission. (And I’m guessing there’s another side to that story; you can look it up.) Instead, he gave the paintings to the Tate Gallery as an expression of his affection for England and for British artists, particularly JMW Turner. Go figure. I’ve always been a fan of Turner’s, ever since a painting of his was on the cover of my very favorite college English anthology.

But it never would have occurred to me to see any artistic affinity between the two. Yet here they are:

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The second painting represents Rothko’s “transitional work,” when he was trying to make up his mind what kind of painter he was going to be. Most people who are familiar with Rothko are familiar with the later stuff.

So now, if you’ve read this whole post, you know pretty much everything I know about art. Where do you fall on the modern-premodern continuum, if there is such a thing? Has art ever saved your life?

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One thought on “Modern art and me

  1. Sara – Your story of sudden meaning and resonance with Rothko’s abstract art, discovered in your grief, really struck home. I’ve been moved to tears by the line and curve of an abstract sculpture, suddenly poignant, where once I sensed nothing. It’s like switching from B&W to color, or as if a new sense comes on line…just when we need it. Meg

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