I am equally curious about and wary of the impulse to ask what a piece of art means. Asking for meaning this way is asking for a particular kind of translation: show me the painting — play me the cantata — then give it to me again in English.
The art speaks — is speaking — for itself. Even the metaphor — speak — is incorrect. Art might not speak. It might instead offer an experience, a different way of seeing, an emotion. Whittling this down into words can feel reductive. Nevertheless! This is the job, the challenge, the great joy of the writer.
The best descriptions are the ones that teeter between language and image, which is to say: poetry. C.D. Wright quotes Agnes Martin, who said her “paintings were for people to look at before daily care strikes.” What does that even mean? I don’t necessarily get it but now I kind of get Agnes Martin. Her clean white canvases startle with their plainness — the shadow of a gray cross pulsing beneath, sometimes with just a speck of purposeful blue dust in the lower left-hand corner. Somebody so happy with their life they don’t see the dried blueberry under the kitchen sink. Or, a way to wake up. Breath made textural.
Yesterday I opened my eyes in the middle of a kiss. Jimmy’s eyes were open too, bright and lashed. Up that close, one lay on top of the other like a folded Cyclops, like a Picasso portrait.
“It Is An Experience”
Last week, in therapy, I was telling my therapist how what I really need is to be more open and flexible and willing to deal with things that interrupt my schedule, when all of a sudden the painting hanging over my head dislodged from the wall and landed on me. The last thing I saw, before I realized what exactly was happening, was my therapist’s mouth stretched open in horror. The painting tumbled with incredible velocity off the small shelf it rested on and hit me frame-first on my right forearm. It slid to a smooth landing on the carpeted floor, where it rested face down between me and my open-mouthed therapist. I stared at it. My arm hurt. I clutched at it with my left hand, checking to see if the arm was still connected at the bone. It was.
My therapist rushed out and returned with a small Ziploc bag filled with ice cubes. I pressed it to my arm. We stared at each other. “I guess I do need to be more open to unexpected things,” I said, and she seemed relieved that I was not threatening a lawsuit. It was impossible not to imagine other outcomes: the painting landing on my head, the glass shattering, an artery cut… there was half an hour of our session left but I could not focus. I kept looking at my arm, waiting for a bruise, a cut, or some sign of the injury to reveal itself.
“What does it mean,” I texted my friend Sally, after the hour was over. “What painting was it?” she wrote back. Of course, I thought, I’ve missed the most important symbol of all! All week I waited to return, eager to find out what had nearly hit me over the head. All week I stared at my arm, waiting for the bruise to form. “OUCH,” I said, anytime I had to pick something up. “BE CAREFUL,” I said, anytime my boyfriend came near it.
Returning to therapy a week later, I was pleased to see the very painting hung again in a new spot, where I could contemplate it from my seat on the couch. It is a poster reproduction of the Rothko painting, “Green, Red, on Orange.” Like all of Rothko’s art, at first it seems simple: two colors, a square of green laying heavily atop a square of red. Like all of his art, the longer you stare at it, the more you notice. The third color, orange, begins to reveal itself. The red begins to feel heavier. The two squares pulsate as the opposite colors contrast. “It means something about Christmas,” offered the stupid part of my brain that always pipes up first.
I raced home to Google it. “Mark Rothko Green Red Orange Meaning,” I typed in, waiting for a result. Here is what I found: you can buy the poster for $32.99 at Kohl’s. Here is what else I found: a quote from Rothko, who refused to explain his work. “Silence is so accurate,” he said, “the words would only paralyze the viewer’s mind.” My bruise ripened to a disappointing pale violet and faded soon after to a hepatitis yellow. Rothko also said, “A painting is not about experience. It is an experience.”
Olivia Dunn is a Teaching Professor of English at Skidmore College and a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in The Pinch Journal, Seneca Review, Burningword, SHANTIH Journal, the Same, Tinker Street, JMWW, The Nervous Breakdown, River Teeth, and McSweeney’s.
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Art Reginald Gray (Katy in front of Rothko) Public Domain