Wednesday, March 10, 2010

If You Were Rothko...

Do you know Mark Rothko? He was an abstract expressionist painter who spent much of his time painting very large canvases with rectangles of color.

Here's an image of one of his paintings, taken from Wikipedia:

I've been a fan of Rothko's work for years, but it wasn't until 2009 at the Tate gallery in London that I saw his paintings the way they were supposed to be seen. When Rothko allowed his works to be viewed, he was very careful to specify the type of lighting he preferred (usually dim), the height at which they were to be displayed on the wall (sometimes close to the floor, sometimes several feet up), what other works were allowed to be displayed alongside his work...he even specified at what distance he preferred his viewers to look at his work (sometimes 18 inches, which is very close considering his paintings are larger than any large screen TV I've ever seen.)

These mandates by the artist might seem out of line, and maybe some would say Rothko wasn't even a very good artist, considering all he ever painted were rectangles. When I saw the exhibit at the Tate, the first thing I felt at trying to view his higher-placed paintings in dim lighting was frustration. I could barely see them. They were just blurry spaces, almost like ghosts of color. Frankly, I didn't like them at all.

But, I found myself thinking of these works weeks after I left the gallery. Not only did I like them more, but I found myself wanting to see them again...or, more accurately to experience them again. Rothko wanted his work to be displayed in a particular way because he wanted to envelop us with his color, to create something that surrounds us in an intimate way. And, without me knowing that, I suddenly longed for it. Only a year later--last weekend to be exact--did I learn about what his intentions were.

Rothko, in my opinion, was a brilliant artist. To compare his work to those of Rembrandt or Renoir or Dali or Munch would be pointless because he had created something new, something unique. And, when he was faced with wanting to do something that no one else had done before, he didn't change his work to conform. Instead, he changed the viewers, he trained people to see his work.

All the rules that I talk about, all the tools I present here will only get you so far. And, if you follow them perfectly, chances are you will end up sounding like everyone else who has learned to follow the rules. (Granted, a lot of people won't even get that far.) You can change your work if you think you are improving it. But, don't change your work because the world hasn't learned how to see it. Teach us. What would you demand of your readers if you were Mark Rothko? What rules would you give us so that you didn't have to conform to rules yourself?


  1. "more accurately to experience them again" Yes! That is my reaction to great art. I have been stunned when standing in a room filled with Van Gogh's work, because it was felt in my body, not just seen with my eyes.
    But I don't think I would give my readers rules. I would hope that what I write will hit them viscerally, however my vision presents itself.

  2. Sometimes the intent of the artist is to leave an impression, and that's not necessarily a happy one.

    In Paris ten years ago, a friend and I and saw two installations in the Pompidou Centre that made us uncomfortable. I don't remember the names of the artists. I still remember the work.

    One was two tv screens, showing a cheerful white woman on one, an angry black man on the other. Each repeated the same phrases, a few seconds apart in timing. They kept saying, "I like to_____. You like to ____. He likes to_____," with different verbs.

    The second installation was an entire room filled with glass cases of tiny dead birds wearing pink and blue handknit sweaters. I have no idea what the artist's intention was, but I vividly remember how I felt in that room. That may have been exactly what he wanted.

    Ten years later, my friend and I can still rattle off quotes from those videos, or just say, "Birds in sweaters," and we both know what we mean. I've seen very few art pieces that have left that kind of impact.

  3. Don't change. Teach us: this is certainly a different way to look at my work, one that I don't think I've adopted, both as a performing pianist and a fiction writer. In fact, I find the notion quite foreign, if not totally opposite to what I have been thinking about my art, which is to reach out, to seek common experiences using a format/art form both creator and audience are familiar with.

    I guess they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But this is certainly a notion I have to consider more.

    BTW, I love Rothko as well, and don't know why I do. I just get pulled into his swatches of colors and moods.

  4. Tricia, Van Gogh has a strong impact on me as well. I think that the amount of "training" an audience needs also depends on how foreign a particular work of art is. The more foreign, the more training that's required. But, I also remember the example of the violinist Joshua Bell playing in a subway. He's been recognized as a great violinist, but in the wrong place, he was barely noticeable. I do think a prepared audience can be more receptive.

    Michelle, great point. No, I don't think an artist's intention has to be happy at all. Of course, I'm speaking from a depressive's point of view. For me, Rothko is always slightly depressing as well.

    Yat-Yee, In my opinion what you are after isn't mutually exclusive from what I'm talking about here. But, I'd say it could be, depending on what you're trying to do. A philosophy that I buy into more and more is that, the better we become and being ourselves, the more generally applicable our writing becomes. So, for me, I don't strive to be unique for unique's sake. I try to be more myself, which by definition will be unique. So, I do think there is that caveat. I strive for a specific originality. That really should be another post!

  5. Excellent point. I need to keep this in mind when I take critiques. Sometimes they help make things better. Sometimes they make my words sound like someone else's.

  6. Davin, this is an excellent post, and stretches my mind in a few ways it hasn't stretched before. I never thought of my art being able to do that - to train a different view and perspective. How intriguing! I think that when you showed me Amy Bender's work, that was eye-opening, especially the interactive piece (Hotel Rot). That reminds me of Michelle's bird-sweater thing, something I won't forget soon. It did make me uncomfortable, as did some of her other work, but that's because of not only the subject, but how she presented it.

    I could go on and on, but I'll just say here that this opens a few more avenues for me with my new fantasy piece I want to do. How refreshing. :)

  7. The only Rule: Come with an Open Mind.

    Rules, boundaries, limitations are illusions. Rules are limitations that exist only by the consent of the ruled.

    Art and literature are valuable because they expand our minds through experience of other perspectives, but only if we open our mind and allow those perspectives/experiences in.

    IMHO ;)

  8. Lois, definitely. I think this applies very well to when we receive critiques and reviews.

    Michelle, glad to hear this opened some things up for you! This was something that I probably always knew, but that I didn't internalize until very recently. But, as a reader, I realize that it is definitely true. For some writers, I won't like them until I've read enough of their work. By that point, I've been trained.

    Journalizer, That is key!

  9. Because Mighty Reader is currently plowing through the first draft of a new novel of mine, and because I'm working on the first chapter of another new novel, I've been thinking sort of along these lines. One thing I've noticed in my own reading, especially when reading writers who are new to me, is that there is a sort of "negotiations" stage during the first chapter or three, where I am trying to figure out how to read the particular book, how to handle the voice/style of the writer, and if the book and I will be a good match for the duration. It's sort of like dating. The writer sort of sets forth certain propositions and rules of her own and it's up to me to figure those rules out and abide by them or not. Nabokov, Woolf, Lawrence, Rushdie, Grass, Eco, Byatt, Hemingway, Calvino, Atwood and lots of others are writers who've done this, and they've all changed the way their readers see novels. But I still say that in the end, it's the artist who must do the most work to bridge the gap, because he has to ultimately have something to say that has meaning to someone else. We have no right to throw works before the public with a demand to be understood.

    For "Cocke & Bull" I am hoping readers will accept the semi-stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences style. For the new book, I'm hoping readers will accept a sort of elliptical, allusive and heavily symbolic narrative style. We'll see. Hopefully there is something immediately compelling about both books that draws them in and holds their attention while they get used to the peculiarities of my stylistic choices.

  10. Thanks for doing another great post on this!

    You've reminded me of when I keep saying writers can't know and control reader minds, writers can only convince them. The convincing is where I think they should work the hardest (post-first draft). Of course, this will be to hypothetical imagined readers.

    This is EXACTLY the problem my work tends to have:

    "I think that the amount of "training" an audience needs also depends on how foreign a particular work of art is."

    --My work is typically composed strangely: there's the fiction's outsides and then the fiction's insides. It seems readers either see a straightforward outside style presentation first, or they see unusual inner content first; they don't see both all at once--at first.

    At first glance or first level, my work looks different than at second and third glance--on purpose sometimes. But I've had trouble getting people to stick around LONG ENOUGH AS READERS to reach the other levels. Too often I think they walk away with incomplete views of my wholes.

    I generally focus on writing beneath the surface. That too many people today have been trained to look at surface means much of what I'm really doing will often be missed.

    Because of my own work's situation, I always give another writer's work more than one read. I won't comment in any detail about a fiction unless I've read all or most of what I'm commenting on at least twice.

  11. I happened to like Rothko's work, but had no clue he wanted his pieces to be viewed in a very specific way.

    This idea of training the reader is interesting and I think it would take a few books to get there. In our books we create the mood/world/prose, but the experience for the most part will still be up to the reader and unique to each reader.

    Excellent post!

  12. Scott, I've noticed the same thing with books, and I think you bring up a lot of good examples. I think the writer does have to do the majority of the work, and the process of bridging the gap or training the reader may be part of our work.

    F. P. This is something that has moved me, so I may present more than these two comments on it even. For my own personal reading experience, I will go back to a book if I feel like there was something I've missed. So, for me, there must be some tip off that signals to me that there is that second layer you describe. Usually, this happens for books I like that I can't figure out right away. I'm drawn to them, but I don't know why. I love trying to unravel those.

    Crimey, that's a really interesting point. I do think the process takes time. Scott mentioned that it takes the beginning chapters, like dating, and I think that's maybe what you're saying too, but on a larger scale. I learn a lot from reading more than one work by an author. And, usually, it makes me appreciate them more because I better understand what they are trying to do.

  13. Wow, I had never actually considered that as a novel writer, I could make demands upon the reader. But it's an interesting thought. If it worked for Rothko, why not a writer?

    This post reminds me of Lady Glamis' a couple weeks ago, "You Guessed Wrong." Except that post was more about a third party (a teacher) placing demands upon the reader instead of the author doing so.

    But I suppose the effects are somewhat the same, whether the creator of a work or a third party places requirements upon the observer.

    If the artist/writer gives no instructions or explanations with a work, it will probably have the broadest reach. People can consume it however they wish, so more people will like it, and there will be a wide variety of interpretations or experiences of the work.

    If a piece comes with instructions, it may be less accessible or appealing to the general public at first. But requiring more effort of engagement on the part of the viewer/reader means higher engagement for those who choose to play along, and it also allows for a more focused message or experience to be communicated.

    So I guess it's one of those things an artist or writer could choose depending on his/her goals for the work.

    I've never actually thought about what demands I'd place on a reader. I read all the industry blogs pushing marketability and accessibility and friendliness for higher sales. And I do like the idea of reaching a wide audience and lending my work to different interpretations.

    But I HAVE fantasized about placing demands on an imaginary publisher! Those demands might indirectly force the reader to experience my work in the way I choose. For example, if I ordered that my book be bound in a particular material, have a certain page layout, font, illustrations, etc., that would affect how the reader would experience my work.

    I've even thought about writing a Braille-only book with tactile literary devices! But alas, I don't know Braille and I hear it's going out of fashion...

    Anyway, it seems like a modern, literary example might be controlling the method of distribution (paper, e-book, audio, etc). Or, I don't know, printing only one copy of a book and forcing people to come to a certain location and put on fuzzy gloves to read it. It's weird because books by nature are mass-produced, while a painting has an original that differs importantly from prints or reproductions.

    Let's see, honestly... I think one thing I might like to ask my readers to do is some background research on certain topics so they can appreciate my literary references without having to be informed in footnotes or just left out. Kids these days just don't get the literary education they used to, in general. So I guess my demand would be a reading list before reading my novel.

    However... I myself have been trained to, like Scott said, bridge the gap myself and never require the reader to do much work to consume my sugary written treats. I try to use the "Simpsons" method of layering jokes so that they're funnier if you get the third level, but still funny if you don't.

  14. Davin, this is a lovely post. I'll probably print it out so I won't forget....


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  16. I was an artist before I became a writer and the distinction between the two has always fascinated me. Fine artists have fewer constraints, more mediums to work with, more freedom to bend rules and make "demands" of the viewer. In fiction writing (versus poetry), one word has to follow the next in a certain pattern, one idea has to follow another, or the story doesn't make sense--the reader becomes lost. So while I think there's some room for experimentation, writers are constrained by the medium itself. In my opinion, there are very few rules you can break before your writing falls apart ... and then becomes a work of visual art! Thanks for the beautiful post. Rothko is one of my favorite artists, too.


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