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Mark Rothko: another suicidal abstract bad-boy painter from the middle of the last century, so what?
This is what: a day at the museum when then the last painting in the Napoleon exhibit is presented in such a way that it was, in effect, the same as the last painting I happened to see.

Rothko wasn’t one of my top-ten favorite artists, but he was the top of the list of color-field painters I liked when I was studying art. He’s the kind of artist who grows on you as you mature, the way eating habits change with experience. The article I’m reading now compares his work to Roman villa murals, and that makes sense when you encounter his work. It’s color and not color, depth and surface, immersive. Simply immersive. Rothko creates a world that exists within your own head; his paintings invite you into his mind, which then occupies yours. It’s not always comfortable, given Rothko’s own dark visions. It remarkably effective in its apparent simplicity, the colors hovering over one another, creating depth with saturated color.

The first Rothko I saw must have been in Chicago, though the first one I remember is Red, Orange, Orange on Red in St. Louis; I must have seen the Albright Knox’s not long after they acquired it– the red and black are more familiar and more comfortable, in a way, than the orange and red.

But this is a history blog, you say, a costume blog. Why are we talking about Rothko? We’re talking about Rothko because seeing a Rothko– standing in front of an actual Rothko, taking a breath and looking— is an experience. An emotional experience. Reader, I wept.*

Just as the projected waves washed the walls of the final gallery in the Napoleon exhibit, so too did the blues of this untitled painting move. They vibrated with emotion, and I was immersed in blue, a kind a symphony of color, as close as I will ever come to synesthesia.

And that’s what good exhibits do, what good history does, what accuracy does. It renders the past visible, tactile, sensible, immersive. It catches us, and we fall down. Art, history, culture: if we are sucked into that otherness, hooked by feeling, we are more likely to learn something.

As stood before the Rothko, I noticed a Cornell– and a teenager noticing the Cornell. Joseph Cornell’s boxes were my first obsession, when I skipped school to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to spend my day surrounded by Cornell’s tiny universes, transported to another place.

Untitled (Primary Title), painted and papered wood and glass box, with wood, plaster pipe, metal rings, nails, and string by Joseph Cornell, probably 1950s. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 96.41

Isn’t that what we’re trying to do, every time we dress in these funny clothes, visit historic sites, reenact the past? Aren’t we all seeking some sublime moment, when this solid present becomes the ether of the past? Sometimes the way to understand that most readily is to study something else entirely– like a Rothko. Or a Cornell. Sometimes the way into a thing is sideways, when understanding and inspiration come from an unfamiliar place, when me make connections we don’t expect.

L’Empereur Napoléon Ier sur son lit de mort, oil on panel by Denzil O. Ibbetson, 1821.

Death and Napoleon and Rothko and Cornell all seem obviously connected to me– and not just through the symbolism of the rich cobalt blues.

*I do this in museums: when I walked into the Kaufman Gallery at the NGA, tears welled in my eyes at the sight of so much beauty.