Sun on Your Back

Bonnie Levinson

A young enthusiastic woman in her early twenties with an interest in the arts approached me recently, curious about my career path. Was there a particular experience or person that motivated or inspired me? How did I know that a career in the arts was what I had to pursue? I commended her right away for reaching out and encouraged her to follow her passion, to not be timid about connecting with people no matter how distant or unreachable. Was there a moment in your journey that distinguished itself in your quest, she asked? For me it was just such an encounter that caused a shift in my perspective and way of thinking.

I first saw his paintings at the Museum of Modern Art. I came upon them unexpectedly. There were several in the room. I stood for a long time in front of a large orange pulsating canvas. The colors completely engulfed me. I was breathing, smelling, ingesting the painting through every fiber in my being. I stood trembling, on the verge of tears; I had never felt anything in my body like it before. I referred to it years later as my first catharsis. It would not be my last.

I found his name listed in the New York City phone book. Imagine a time when people actually listed their number and their address in a phone book. He was probably caught off guard. What do you say to a twelfth-grader who tells you that you are the artist they admire most in the world and then requests an interview? You say yes of course, even if you are tormented, cranky, surly, arrogant, and deeply depressed. I had no idea that he didn’t give interviews. I didn’t know of his dark side or what was going on in his life at the time.

On Tuesday, April 29, 1969 I spent my first afternoon with an artist in his studio at 157 East 69th Street. Marcus Rothkowitz from Latvia had become Mark Rothko. I took the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station and traversed the town. I spent my train time rehearsing questions from my index cards. I rang the bell of his townhouse. From the outside, it looked more like someone’s home, not what I imagined of a real art studio. I must have had a puzzled, disappointed look on my face, not dissimilar to his expression when he answered the door. He didn’t look like an artist.

Wearing a white shirt and skinny black tie, his tortoise shell rimmed glasses and thinning hair made him look more like a professor than an artist, and older than his sixty-five years. He was not a large man, but he was intimidating. He silently motioned for me to follow him. There was no paint on his pants. Where was the paint? I was about to say something about that when another man equally old interrupted us and joined us in the small sitting room. I thought he was there to help, but now when I think of it perhaps he was there as a witness and chaperone. I yanked at my kelly green micro mini dress trying to pull it down towards my knees so I could sit appropriately. I focused and quickly put my long dirty blonde hair up into a ponytail. Methodically, I took out my notes, my index cards, my cassette player, tapes, pens and paper. He puffed hard and long on what looked like a handmade cigarette. It didn’t have a filter.  His legs were crossed and he leaned way back.

With a raspy voice he said, “I think before I start the interview I ought to say that I will not answer your questions. I am not a critic or judge nor am I an art historian, but I’d like to help as much as possible.”

What—not answer my questions? I could feel the heat rising up to my face, a deep gulp forming in my throat, a tickle in my nose. Fighting back tears, I raised my index cards, covering my face. “I know that you feel it is important for the spectator to submerge himself in a pure color space experience and the viewer completes the painting. Could you explain why you feel this way?”

He looked at me and inhaled deeply, the circles of perfectly formed O’s rising up and up. “In my paintings the picture is the measure of the spectator; the silent paintings reflect what the viewer brings with him. I am not trying to communicate any specific meaning or message just to express a mood and a feeling to the viewer. You complete the painting, not the artist.”

“Many people feel that modern art is not good because they do not feel that the paintings take a long time to produce. How do you react to this? He took a drag of the cigarette with his thumb and index finger holding what was now a small nub. His lips pressed hard, pulling his breath in deeply to inhale the very last bit of the butt.

I held my breath.

He exhaled. “A painting is what you are and what you feel. It isn’t concrete or defined. So far as I am concerned, it takes an entire lifetime until the moment you feel you complete the specific work to truly create it. The painting or work is an accumulation of your experiences and thoughts up to that point.”

I was dizzy. All I could do was read my final question “You seem to rely on color and large floating shapes to express yourself. I have heard you do not accept principles of design and you do not feel texture is important, but yet your paintings are not flat, and I feel that texture and depth dominate your works.”

“If that is what you are searching for in my paintings, I am glad you found it. I am an artist, not a writer. My paintings express all my thoughts. It is an insult to ask an artist to verbalize about his work. It is what it appears to be to the viewer and no more. Words are unimportant and meaningless to me as an artist. My tools are canvas and paint.”

He brought me back to a vast space with a huge skylight, his studio where the walls were lined with paintings in process. I was surprised that he worked on so many canvases at a time and struck by the dark deep monotones. Very solemn, almost gloomy they were not like the glow of the red, orange, yellow canvas at the Museum of Modern Art.

I felt at peace with the art, quiet and meditative, and then I blurted out—THERE’S A BED IN THE MIDDLE OF YOUR STUDIO.  I was shocked that there was a bed in his studio and not in a bedroom; he must have slept right there with his paintings. He lived with his art. He was a real artist.

Mark Rothko said, “It is important to the human spirit to create art, to experience art, to be open to art. It allows the exultation of the heart and spirit.”

I was thrilled when I heard about a Broadway play RED that invited the audience into Mark Rothko’s studio where he and his assistant were working on a new commission that represented not only fame and fortune to Rothko, but also the essence of greed and materialism that he despised. I recognized Rothko. He was as he was with me, impatient, uncompromising, intolerant, brilliant, and inspiring. At the end of the play my eyes filled with tears. I realized the privilege I had experienced as a young woman. He committed suicide one year after our interview in that very studio on 69th Street. I sobbed the tears that I had held back so many years before.

Murray Israel, an artist friend of Rothko, said that Rothko wanted to create a presence, so when you turned your back to the painting you would feel that presence, the way you feel the sun on your back. I didn’t imagine that the meeting with him would have such power and influence in my choosing a life path. Less than a decade later I would be working in art museums as an educator, sharing in the transformative power of art.  What he expressed to me that day had deep presence to me, sun on my back.

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