Total Miles: 2114.5
Hanging on our dining room is a framed print of what looks like one of the world’s simplest works of art. My colleagues at work have probably even noticed it a time or two in the background of a video call and wondered: “Why that?” Two floating blocks of color, one above the other, it is a reproduction of Mark Rothko’s Yellow and Blue.
Much of the art that had preceded the abstract expressionist movement of which Rothko was a part focused on capturing the real world, often with as much detail as possible. Oil paintings like those of Rembrandt were seen as a way of conveying prestige, wealth. And the finer the detail, the better. Impressionists like Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh changed that by abandoning an interest in art solely as a way of communicating a world that we can already see with our own two eyes. But even they were still painting actual subjects, objects that a viewer could readily identify.
Enter the abstractionists like Rothko who asked: “What if there was no subject at all?” If challenging the notion of what it means to be art is your aim, painting nothing but blocks of color sure fits the bill. When asked about the meaning of his work and that of his contemporaries, he said simply: “The image we produce is understood by anyone who looks at it without nostalgic glasses of history.”
Color elicits emotion, sometimes viscerally. Rothko knew that and used it not only to challenge preconceived notions of art but to invite us in to have that color-induced experience whenever we stand in front of one of his canvases. Or in my case, in front of that framed print on the dining room wall.
I’ve had that visceral reaction to color, both standing before a Rothko painting and out in the real world. Have you ever felt mesmerized by a particular shade, or perhaps even found one unsettling? Then you have too.
Challenging a notion of what it means to be art is not unlike challenging the notion of what it means to be beautiful. To be worthy of a photograph. With mile after mile of road-walking again today, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that there is nothing beautiful. Nothing worthy of a camera shutter. Nothing to gaze at or reflect on. But taking off my own “nostalgic glasses of history”, there’s artwork all around. Not the easy beauty of the Wind River Range that anyone can see, perhaps. It may be simply the juxtaposition of color:
Or the way dust hangs in the air long after whatever produced it is forgotten:
Or the way sky and water reflect one another:
The truth is that art comes in an infinite number of forms. Challenging what we see and how we see it is how we evolve, grow, appreciate, and find the depth in the seemingly ordinary. It’s right there in front of each of us, if only we would remove the nostalgic glasses of history.