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The Portland Diaries, Part 2

Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

I went the wrong way at the Rothko exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, turning right instead of left, which meant that I saw his last work first.  I have an excuse, though:  when I walked in, I looked to the left and saw a bunch of stuff I didn’t recognize.  Nice paintings, but not Rothkos.  Must be some other exhibit. Works from the permanent collection or whatever.  But over to the right I saw some Rothkos, so I went that way.

You don’t have to do much label-reading to figure out when you’re going backwards in an exhibit and seeing the work in reverse chronological order.  It was then that I realized that all those other paintings I’d seen–those non-Rothkos?  That was him!  That was the artist as a young man.

Stuff like this:

and this:

Remind you of anybody?  Like, oh, I don’t know:  Chagall? Gauguin? Klee?  Picasso?  Matisse?  Miro?  Go see the exhibit and I swear you will see every one of them.

I couldn’t believe it!  What was he doing, painting like all those other artists?  He had Rothkos to make–didn’t he know that?  Time’s a-wastin’–get to it, son!

Then.  Then you get this point in his early forties when bits of Rothkos start peeking out from around the edges of these other dreamy, abstract paintings he’s doing.  You see a bit of a Rothko here, and another bit there.  It’s as if they’re trying to make room for themselves on the canvas.  It’s as if they are saying:

“Ahem.  Mr. Rothko.  We’re right here. Where are you?”

And then–there it is! At the age of 46, he does it.  For the first time, he paints a Rothko.  Holy shit!  It’s a little weird and imperfect, like a foal struggling to its feet, but there it is.

On the right is one of his earliest Rothko-esque paintings. On the left–after a few more years–he has it nailed.


At the age of, say, fifty.

And you know what?  Rothko is not a late bloomer. He had to paint all those other paintings before he could start painting Rothkos.  The Rothkos weren’t just sitting on a cloud up in Heaven waiting for him to say his prayers and have them delivered to his studio.  No, Rothko made that shit come to life.  He made it by painting all that other shit first.

He did that.

I love teaching (Dear Portland State University:  I love teaching, please invite me back someday because this turns out to be one hell of a way to live) because when I discover something like this, I can take it right over to a room full of really smart, eager, engaged people who will listen to me (because they have to) and write it down (because they’re writers, and they write stuff down.)

So here, class. Here’s what we learn from Rothko:

First, go ahead and write like the masters.  If you’re writing like some great author you adore, that means you’re learning.  You’re assembling a vocabulary, a took kit, a palette. And trust me–it is your own weirdly specific tool kit.  No one before you has ever put an iron button, a glass eye, a viridian crayon, a Q-tip, and an old Steve Martin record into one tool kit and made something out of it.  You would be the first.  That would be you.

Second, pay attention to that crazy shit that keeps creeping in around the edges.

Third, there are no late bloomers. You are not late for anything. You are right on time.

So. Go see the Rothko exhibit, and after you’re done, slip a tab of LSD under your tongue and go upstairs to experience the John Frame exhibit.  (I kid about the LSD–you won’t need it.  It is the LSD.)  This thing–this creepy, whispery, haunted, magical thing John Frame has done–came into being six years ago, when Frame, apparently frustrated and ready to give up on art just as a major retrospective of his work was opening, had a dream–A DREAM!–that steered him toward this entirely strange and utterly original new work.

At the age of, like, fifty-five.

I’m just saying.  We are all just on the way to our Thing. So go see Rothko’s thing, and John Frame’s thing, and then go home and get back to work on your thing.


  1. You have no idea how right on time this post is. Helped me shift out of my pre-birthday blues. I hope you will continue teaching, it’s been great so far. Now, I will forget that I read this so I can write it in my notes in class tomorrow!

  2. This is a fantastic post. I went straight to my Facebook page to post it there for all of my fellow MFAs to read. Some are reaching the end of their stints at our program and the rest of us are looking at our last year–we’re all kind of in limbo. I knew about Rothko’s student work before (I was an Art History major and I’ve been a Rothkoite for years) but somehow, you made me look at him differently. Hell, you’ve made me look at my own work differently.

  3. Cool. I love early works. You can watch Mondrian become Mondrian through his early works. And that picture above of the man going down into the subway is fantastic – once you know it’s Rothko you can pick out the blocks of color, light and dark, and the squareness, the Rothkoness, of it all.

  4. I got wait-listed last year @ PSU and reading this post makes me even more sad about it, because you appear to be an awesome prof. 🙁

    This definitely applies to poets too (which is your point). Ex. Ginsberg didn’t become Ginsberg over-night. His first two books are heavily Blakean and formal. He had to write those (and meet like-minded writers) to get to “Howl”.

  5. We just saw the play “Red,” by Jonathan Logan at the Berkeley Rep, which is about Rothko, using the device of an ongoing dialog between him and a young studio assistant. Very revealing and thought-provoking. and highly recommended, should a production show up in your neighborhood. Rothko was as much a philosopher as a painter, and his ideas about the power and meaning of his (and other) paintings remain challenging long after his demise.