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Feeling Overwhelmed? The MFA Says One Minute With A Rothko Painting Could Help05:19Download

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The MFA invites visitors to engage with works by Rothko and other artists for one minute. Most people only spend two or three seconds with art works in museums. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
The MFA invites visitors to engage with works by Rothko and other artists for one minute. Most people only spend two or three seconds with art works in museums. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

There’s so much going on in the world these days: political conflicts, natural disasters, cultural unrest. It can be hard to process.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t feel bad. You’re definitely not alone.

In response to our tumultuous times, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is opening "Seeking Stillness,” a display that invites visitors to spend time with about 40 works by contemplative artists, including 20th-century painter Mark Rothko. Folks there believe it can help.

MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum remembers a question he and his staff grappled with as they tried to decide on the fall exhibitions for the museum’s contemporary gallery.

“What do we do in this moment where everything seems so raw, where everything seems so polemical, where everything seems so confrontational?” Teitelbaum recalled. “How do we get through it?”

An issues or politics-oriented show seemed like the answer. But the team had another idea.

“Well, we get through it by thinking more deeply about who we are and what our position is in the world,” Teitelbaum said. “So if we can create a moment where that could happen for people — not really as therapy, but as a way of being — we would be doing something pretty special. And that’s what we proposed.”

Mark Rothko's "No. 1" at the MFA. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Mark Rothko's "No. 1" at the MFA. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

'Immersing Yourself' In The Paintings

Now it’s a reality. A group of curators collaborated to organize “Seeking Stillness.” For her part, Elliot Bostwick Davis, who chairs the MFA's Art of the Americas department, selected 11 monumental (some would say mystical) paintings by Rothko from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The Rothkos are on loan through July 1, 2018, and this is their New England debut.

“I think we're all just overwhelmed by modern life,” Davis said as she stood in the gallery. She wants visitors who walk through the show to stop and really look at each painting for one minute. Just one.

That might not sound like a big ask, but Davis said it actually is. That’s because most museum visitors spend between two and three seconds with any work of art.

“But these are works that will definitely reward you as you spend more time immersing yourself in them,” Davis explained. “And that is why, as time went on, Rothko painted them so large, because he did feel, with the large paintings, [that] you're in it.”

Some viewers see Rothko's atmospheric paintings as portals. For the artist's cult-like following, being surrounded by his huge, often color-drenched abstract works is the equivalent of going to a temple or church.

The simply titled "No. 1" almost looks like it’s floating off the gallery wall.

Mark Rothko's "No. 1," painted in 1961 with oil and acrylic on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, D.C.; Mark Rothko Foundation; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Mark Rothko's "No. 1," painted in 1961 with oil and acrylic on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, D.C.; Mark Rothko Foundation; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“As you stare at it you might see a very narrow horizontal band at the top,” Davis said, “and a very large, dark, deep rectangle. It actually is both black with some green in it.”

For this show, Davis said, she wanted to recreate the feeling she had as an undergraduate seeing a room full of Rothkos at the Phillips Collection in D.C. for the first time.

Today the artist’s abstract works fetch millions of dollars at auction, but he struggled mightily during his career — with the art market and with his own depression. Davis said he was on a quest to express pure emotion through his works.

“Rothko didn’t want to speak for his paintings,” she said. “He felt silence is something that was very powerful, and it could speak for itself.”

Does It Speak To You?

Mark Rothko's "Untitled," painted in 1949 with oil and mixed media on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, D.C.; Mark Rothko Foundation; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Mark Rothko's "Untitled," painted in 1949 with oil and mixed media on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, D.C.; Mark Rothko Foundation; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

But silence is elusive these days. Author and clinical psychologist Craig Malkin knows that well. He told me the MFA's “Seeking Stillness” theme taps into the zeitgeist, and the way many of his clients are feeling.

“They’re constantly bombarded by notifications from their email, notifications from their text messages," Malkin said. "It’s very difficult to unplug, which is, I think, why there’s a strong movement just to be able to set all of that aside.”

Malkin points to the rise of “nature coaches” who help people reconnect not just with the earth and a sense of peace, but also with themselves.

Art can also help you step back and reflect, Malkin says — as long as it speaks to you. Rothko isn’t for everyone.

“For some people Rothko might just look like bands of color, but for me I see all kinds of lushness and texture that pull me in, and you even start to see shapes after a while,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier to find some peace outside of all the noise that comes at us — even if it’s important information.”

Looking Pays Off

Rothko descended into a darker place before he committed suicide in 1970. Three paintings from his late period are also at the MFA. From a distance, they look like looming, rectangular swaths of black.

Rothko fans make pilgrimages to see the grouping of them at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Rothko skeptics — and there are plenty of them -- joke that anyone can paint works like these.

But art conservator Jay Krueger muses that modern “speed looking” while cruising through museums could be one reason not everyone appreciates these works.

“It’s five seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds maybe. That’s a crazy way to look at art,” he said. “You know, you wouldn’t listen to five seconds of a symphony and move on, or read a half page of a novel. You have to give it a chance to present itself.”

Mark Rothko in 1954. (Courtesy Henry Elkan/Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art)
Mark Rothko in 1954. (Courtesy Henry Elkan/Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art)

Krueger appreciates the MFA's "Seeking Stillness" concept. He's head of modern and contemporary paintings conservation at the National Gallery, and he’s spent hundreds of hours staring at Rothko’s work. Krueger says the dark painting he recently conserved, “No. 8,” is a study in the artist’s skills with layered media — with its stained canvas, custom-mixed pigments and brushstrokes that create unique texture and gloss.

Looking, Krueger says, pays off.

“Spend more time with fewer things,” he recommended. “You’ll remember more about what you’ve seen; you’ll see more than you ever knew was possible.”

Krueger says Rothko actually painted fairly quickly — but then he'd pause to look.

Music by the minimalist composer John Cage carries you through the adjacent galleries, which hold about 40 works by a broad range of artists — transcendent and meditative photographs, sculptures, paintings.

While the MFA’s “Seeking Stillness” display isn't overtly political,  Teitelbaum says, Rothko was a pretty political guy.

“He had some very specific notions about ethical behavior, the rightness of certain actions,” Teitelbaum said. We shouldn’t come away from this new show thinking something that’s still is necessarily quiet.


"Mark Rothko: Reflection" is on display at the MFA through July 1, 2018. 

This segment aired on September 22, 2017.

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Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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