Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Seduction of Light

Mark Rothko, No. 1, 1961

The Seduction of Light: Mark Rothko at the American Folk Art Museum.
Mark Rothko at the American Folk Art Museum?? In the haze of jet lag, missed flights, complete disorientation, it was a disturbing statement, difficult to process. The building was one I had hoped to see, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Recalling the remarkable spaces from a lecture of theirs I had seen, I realised it was a space that called for full immersion. Even the facade was immediately more tactile, more ... grave ... more real ... than I had anticipated.

Standing, staring at the building and wondering whether to pay and go in I was distracted by the notice about Rothko, and was lured inside. And sure enough, there amongst the tin pigs and decoy ducks, were the Rothkos. And they were 'interleaved' with peculiar, stark 19th century portraits by an artist called Ammi Phillips, from New England. The premise of the exhibition was the plotting of a duality between Rothko and Phillips as seekers of light ... as they both "opened portals to a dimension where form was suspended in an ether of suffused atmosphere, and where the mysticism of light was coaxed into being primarily through the vehicle of color." The exhibition sought to draw out, illuminate, a resonance between the two, based solely upon their coloration, the use of the darkness, and the ethereal hues. This in itself was engaging, intoxicating, as an idea.

Ammi Phillips, Woman with Pink Ribbons, c.1831
Yet, compelling as the two artists' work is, both alone and in this strange and not wholly convincing juxtaposition, I found myself always looking over their shoulder at the spaces beyond ... where the real seduction of light was occurring. Photographs of the interior were not permitted, and its interpenetrating and coalescing spaces would in any case be difficult to transpose to two dimensions. The staircases - of which there are sometimes two and sometimes only one - in themselves create a feeling of eternal unfolding space, belying the building's tiny footprint. Cut-aways link floors in unexpected shafts of space, revealing and concealing, exhibiting pure light itself. Thinking back now it is those moments of light falling on the walls, of feeling suspended in the spaces of the staircases, which remain.

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