The first time I saw a Mark Rothko painting in person I was 20 and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. I wasn’t unfamiliar with him as an artist. I’d been lucky enough to study Abstract Expressionism in both high school and college (the latter being the organizer of said trip to the National Gallery). To art history students, including myself at the time, Rothko is presented as the AbEx counterpoint to Jackson Pollock. Rothko painted huge swaths of color over giant canvases to completely envelop the viewer within them, whereas Pollock used movement in his “action paintings,” dripping paint over canvases and making the way he worked seen in the work.
Rothko is hard to explain to the casual art viewer for this reason. If you see a big painting with a few squares of color in a book or a print, you’re not likely to really see the nuance of Rothko. His work has to be seen in person to be understood. I’d been told this multiple times by different people, but it wasn’t until I stood in the National Gallery of Art face to face with a Rothko that I truly got it. Yes, there are nuances in color and stroke that you can’t see in a textbook, but it was more than that. Sitting in front of a Rothko is by far one of the most spiritual experiences of my life — and of a lot of people’s lives (Zelda included).
Rothko has a way of bringing out poetry in people as they try to describe what it makes them feel, because Rothko makes you feel. You don’t look at Rothko: You experience it. A Rothko evokes.
I didn’t really understand how to explain how I felt about Rothko until early this year. I was sitting at work listening to “The Lonely Palette,” an excellent podcast that you should all check out. As a part of her exploration of Rothko, host Tamar Avishai asks visitors at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to describe their experience looking at one of his paintings. Someone (I think her mother or sister) replies, “This is my Kol Nidre.”
Avishai makes a sarcastic joke implying that this comparison really isn’t going to connect with the listening audience. But I’ve never felt things slot into place in my brain like I did when I heard it. A Rothko does evoke the same thing in me that Kol Nidre does, the same feeling that I get when standing in a synagogue on Erev Yom Kippur as the haunting melody echoes through the sanctuary.
Kol Nidre is an Aramaic prayer sung at the beginning of the services for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It is about repudiating vows that cannot be upheld, and preemptively annulling promises we cannot keep as we prepare to ask forgiveness for the ones we have broken over the past year. But for me it is not so much what the words say that matters, but how the music makes me feel. The melody itself has become ingrained in the liturgy, so much so that, at my particular services, we listen to both an instrumental version and an a capella version. As the notes swell, I close my eyes and feel…something. It’s a something that I haven’t really been able to put into words, that encompasses “understood,” “at home,” “at peace,” “kinship” — but at the same time “submerged” and “lifted” and “enveloped” and “connected” and “alone.”
Those often contradictory feelings are the same ones I feel when sitting with a Rothko painting. They are the moments when I feel closest to something bigger, when I feel like the whole idea of there being a god isn’t just a structural function of my chosen religion but something that I feel connected to, that I feel recognized by. It’s, if you’ll pardon the sappiness, transcendent. It’s a stillness outside our lives to just be.
I think art as a whole has this ability to make you feel abstract feeling, to put words or images or sounds to the complexities of being human. That’s what I am thinking about this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement. I’m finding the things that I see myself in: a Rothko painting, a haunting melody, a passage in a book, a single shot in a film. As we gear up for a very busy fall, I urge both myself and anyone reading this to find your own moments of resonance. Let yourself be seen in all your complexities. Find a thing, a place, a song that makes you feel, that evokes something within you, that puts an explanation to a feeling you thought you couldn’t explain. That lets you say to me, “This is my Kol Nidre.”