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(piano music) Steven: We're in the Museum of Modern Art, and we're on the fourth floor in the rooms devoted to abstract expressionism and we're standing in front of Mark Rothko's No. 3/No. 13, which dates to 1949. Beth: Those abstract expressionists love to not name their paintings. In fact it's sort of a modernist problem. Steven: It is. It is. Beth: Composition number blah. Steven: Well they don't want to close down meaning. Right? Beth: I understand. That ambiguity is incredibly important for artists in the 20th century. Steven: It is, but I think that the weird No. 3/No. 13 part, I wonder if that has to do with the curators trying to figure out really what this thing was called and not being sure about it. Beth: Yeah, that could be it. Steven: I have no idea, actually. Beth: You know it's interesting because Rothko is an artist that even at a time when I was a little bit put off by abstract painting I always loved the Rothkos. They have a kind of brooding heaviness about them. Steven: A gorgeous melancholy. Beth: Yeah, and I don't think I even knew why it made me feel that way. Steven: I think Rothko would have been really, really happy to hear you say that. I think Rothko really wanted people, in fact, i seem to remember a quote where he said, "If people understood his paintings they would be in tears before them." Beth: Yeah, I think it did that to me. Steven: There's something wonderfully sort of solemn and almost kind of the feeling you sometimes get when you look at stained glass windows in a gothic cathedral. You know, there's something incredibly sort of awesome about them. Beth: There is. Steven: [Unintelligible] fashion sense. Beth: What is it that evokes those feelings really? It's a lot of things. It's the horizontality. It's the way that the forms are sort of behind and in front and have no edges and kind of hover. Steven: Until you said no edges and hover it sounded like you were talking about a Mondrian. Beth: Yeah. But also there's that kind of way that you can see underneath the paint and it comes in front. Steven: That's true. Beth: There's a kind of incompleteness. Steven: A kind of finding. It's a process, right? Beth: Yeah. Steven: You can feel, almost, Rothko's efforts to find his way through this. Beth: Now you sound like we're talking about a Cezanne. Steven: Oh, that's interesting, but I think there are elements of Cezanne and Mondrian here, which is not what you would think of at first. Beth: No. Steven: As you were saying that you were moving your hands back and forth, and I think this is exactly right. It took me a while to figure this out about Rothko, but I think that these are paintings that are about space, rather than color. I think color is important obviously and color is gorgeous. These are forms, these almost clouds of forms that exist in some sort of space of their own construction. Beth: That makes sense. Steven: And it's interesting when you said the horizontality because they are horizontal paintings even though ... Beth: It's a vertical image. Steven: ... the canvas is vertical, yeah. Beth: Yeah. Steven: But they create and occupy space in a very important way, and the heaviness of that black form, that sort of cloud of black rectangle, soft in its edges. Beth: It's so ominous. Steven: Because it's high its center of gravity is every more powerful. Do you see what I mean? Beth: I feel like it almost pulls me into it. Steven: It does, right. Beth: Is that what you mean by the ... Steven: Yeah. Well, I think so, but it also presses down vertically on the cream white below the line of dark blackness below that and the green below that. Absolutely. Beth: It's oppressive. Steven: There's this kind of incredible luminosity that exists here, but actually according to some conservators Rothko's colors have lost a lot of their edge, and I wonder what they would have looked like, even been more luminous. Beth: They're very vivid. Steven: So this notion that one's not after a sort of finished product but these are process oriented paintings. You know the famous term that Rosenberg used was action painting. We don't usually think about that term in relationship to Rothko because there's a kind of centrality and a kind of balance that's so important to his work. Beth: Well, and when you think of action you think about Pollock ... Steven: Pollock, of course. Beth: ... leaning over the canvas. Steven: But I think that there is a kind of provisionalness in the kind of process of finding. I think you're absolutely right, which is very much tied to the artist and his experience in the making of this canvas. And I think that the authenticness of the canvas can really be embedded in that notion. Beth: Of finding, of the artist exploring. Steven: Finding and feeling, yeah. I think that's exactly right. Beth: So there's a kind of turn toward the psyche of the artist. Steven: Yes, exactly right. This is an expression of the interior. What's sort of funny is in the next generation some artists will begin to disavow that. Beth: A complete rejection of that. Steven: Right because this is seen as this kind of psychoanalytic heroicsm growing out of European surrealism, etc. Growing out of Jung, out of Freud, but in a kind of purely American idiom and a kind of American scale, the sort of grandeur and space. Beth: So to use Warhol as a kind of reaction to this. Steven: Yeah, absolutely. Beth: The soup cans. Steven: Absolutely, or Rauschenberg or even Jasper Johns. Beth: That sort of statement that art is not about some kind of inner psychic state that's here. Steven: But this is in some ways a very beautiful and expressive romanticism in that way. Isn't it? Beth: I think so. (piano music)