Number 61

7:00 AM

Mark Rothko, Number 61, 1951
By LIBBY ROHR

“What do you see? What do you think? What do you feel?” While others in the room spouted out evolved and cultural analyses, the only thing I understood was rectangle. It is just a rectangle. What about this large rectangle should make me feel anything? How could these more seasoned Art History students look at this simple shape and have a profound realization? How is this mess of color any different than something I could paint in a half hour? After a documentary and two plays, I can finally say that I see something, I think something, and I feel something.

The soft maroon pulses in this work. It is more imperfect than any other form, and the most human. It is our fragility and our heart, dipping in shade from vibrant to dim, from bold to weak. Grey depression sets in from below, eating its way up to that humanness, but the blue encircles the red to protect it. The sky color in between does not breach the delicate edges of the burgundy, but, instead, seeps into the grey, eliminating it. This blue changes for each one of us. For some it is family, for others, an inspiring film. It is music, literature, or a sunny afternoon. The peace in the calm, reassuring blue takes away the darkness for every one of us. It protects our humanity. It keeps the world from turning us cold. In the battle of Number 61, this guardian of humanity is winning.

On that first day, I took Rothko too literally. I searched for shapes and story where there was none. When I found no definite forms, I gave up. I missed the point. This rectangle on the wall was not intended to tell me any particular story; it was intended to invoke something within me. Rothko painted it to drag up the darkest and lightest visions of humanity. Emotions are our humanness. Every person has felt enraged, lonely, miserable, elated, and peaceful at some time or another. It’s our shared experience of the world. Whether you’ve lived in the deepest slums of India, or emigrated from Russia at a young age, or grew up at the Barstow School, these feelings are something we all understand. That sets Rothko apart from a slob with a paintbrush. Each one of those striking rectangles, the soft lines, the dark heartbeat of the colors, inspires this in all of us. It makes us remember what is left when we close our eyes at night and are in the quiet of our heads and we just feel.

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