Mark Rothko/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

During the past few months, I saw the Mark Rothko show at the Portland Art Museum a few times, attended the play “Red” about an episode in Rothko’s life and attended  a concert with music by American modernist composers who were inspired by Rothko. I thought about Rothko and read about Rothko. At the end of all that, though, I didn’t feel any “closer” to Rothko, even though I felt I should.

Rothko, after all, had been a Portlander for a time, and the subtext of all of this Rothko activity was that we, as a city, were changing our relationship to him, acknowledging him maybe or re-claiming him somehow. I supported this idea, mostly because it had become embarrassing, our denial of the connection, even though I saw this as a sign of our own lack of self-confidence, not disapproval of his “advanced” painting style.

Things are different here now, and we needed to start somewhere, roll our eyes at our own silliness, find our way back to him and embrace one of the Titans of Abstract Expressionism, shyly perhaps, but still… And given our new confidence in our cultural importance, reaching out to Rothko, even so many years after his death in 1970, maybe was something we could manage.

But what if Rothko didn’t reach back? What if what he became as an artist in New York City really didn’t have much to do with us? What if after all our efforts to reintroduce ourselves, he still seemed remote and distant?  Or rather, what if I felt distant from him?  How much does that matter?


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