Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Freewheelin' Mark Rothko

The idea for this post has been hanging around for a few weeks. I have hesitated because it seems a little self indulgent (or more accurately a little irrelevant) to describe some of my thoughts whilst looking at paintings in the Tate’s Mark Rothko exhibition. However the thread of ideas eventually led to some thoughts about running and so the inclusion in this blog can just about be justified, even if it is a little longwinded.

It was the last week of the Rothko exhibition and I decided to go again. It one of my personal quirks that I like to look at the Seagram Murals fairly regularly and this exhibition had the full set, not just the ones in the Tate’s collection. My fondness for the paintings dates back to when I was about seventeen or eighteen and for the first time felt the emotional power of abstract art. I don’t think I had looked carefully and for a long time at any single painting before that moment but in that sombre room I sat very still and just looked and stared. Afterwards I felt a mixture of elation and puzzlement. How would have believed that that such a thing was possible?

It could be that I like to revisit those painting just to remind myself of that moment and that time in your life when you are more open to such flashes of insight, it could be that I like to see them because every time I do they look a little different, or it could be that I like to be reminded of their seriousness of purpose. Whatever the reason I like looking at them.

Before going to the exhibition I had been reading the memoir of Suze Rotolo, who was famously on the cover of ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. She and Bob Dylan were lovers and for both of them it was their first serious relationship. Their youth, affection, and ease with each others just shines out of that photo. The memoir tells of both of the family background that helped her find the strength and independence of spirit to feel at home in Greenwich Village (communist immigrants, low on wealth but high on culture) and the folk and art scene of the time. (There is a good article about her and the book here).

The epigraph in the book is a quotation from Italo Calvino (“Who are we, if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopaedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles and everything can be constantly reshuffled and reordered in every conceivable way”) from Six Memos for the Next Millennium. This is a book I know (and even referred to). Each section deals with a literary quality but the ones I always think of are lightness and quickness (these are after all the qualities which should be associated with running!).

Without knowing it I came into the exhibition primed. The first thing I noticed was the audience. In small second room, where there was just one painting, resting against the wall were three middle aged men (myself included), looking at the work. Sitting on the ground, raptly studying the picture was a man in his mid sixties, grey hair tied back in a pony tail, wearing a green shirt with red patterned trousers. I easily imagined him as an art teacher still embodying the ideas/dress of his youth. Although I had no reason to think he had spent time in America (or was American) I began to picture him in the New York I had just been reading about. I then looked at all the other people and wondered how many of them would have been of the right age to see these paintings as new and fresh, when they first came out. I then started to think of the intellectual excitement of those times, what it would be like to see these paintings fifty years ago and what the audience would have been like.

When sitting down looking at the Seagram murals. I was again struck by how the simple shapes shimmered and changed. Also be their weightiness - they emerge from mist like the stones of Stonehenge. The person sitting next to me had an audio guide that carried an image of a Warhol Campbell’s soup can and this made me think further of opposing traditions in art: the heavy and serious vs. the light and witty. I enjoyed the few moments I spent thinking about this and looking at the paintings from this perspective but I’m sure it only occurred to me because I had been previously thinking about lightness and Calvino.

Outside, on the riverfront, I was passed by any number of runners and thought nothing of it until I heard someone coming up from behind. KerSlapp, kerslapp – each footfall was very loud, very heavy. This man has to be I big and heavy, I thought, a mighty oak of a runner, but when he passed he was just average height, average build. I suddenly realised that lightness was a quality, a matter of style. It was not necessarily related to physical weight. This man was punishing the pavement with an earnest determination but it shouldn’t be that way. I had come from imagining the time when those paintings were fresh and new. Now was here thinking how running ought to feel fresh and new not a grim duty

I had also been thinking about wit and profundity, lightness and heaviness, in art and how both had their virtues and both could be appreciated. Running though is very different – it is much simpler. The only way to run is to be as lightly as possible – you cannot be a profound runner. You can only try to be as fluid as possible and do as little damage to your joints and ligaments as you can. “Run easily, do not frown, don’t be too serious, lift your head up.” I suddenly saw what I had to think of on my next runs.

These resolutions would not have come to me with such clarity if I had not read a book about the New York folk scene before going to an exhibition of abstract expressionism. It is amazing how the mind gets prepared by random events. It is also amazing how once you start running you find yourself thinking about it in the most unlikely circumstances.

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