When I was nineteen, I spent a lot of time with Duncan Philips. At my college, which was known for its preponderance of black clothing and lesbians, a course in economics was going to be Economics of the Arts. And I was going to study patronage, a subject I knew about only so far as my parents and teachers had told me I was great, and fed me and paid for lots of traveling and books and camps and art supplies. I guess I knew something about it.
The little rooms in the library there, the study rooms, were the first place I ever worked hard. The first place I ever sat for hours with books and did real research, lots of it. I walked across the campus there, in a long black skirt and a black coat shaped like a cape. My neighbor in the dorms said I looked like a girl from a fairy tale. That was nice to hear, because I was nineteen, and very, very worried about how to open up to people. I felt very delicate a lot of the time.
I may have chosen Duncan Philips because there was a book about him in the library. I did fall in love with one of the artists he supported, Arthur Dove. Dove remains one of my favorites. His abstracts have a warmth and sensuality that is more heart than head. And he was a serious worker, an artist, I thought, who was more like me. Someone who strived to be sane and grounded and solidly connected to the legacy and the craft of his work. Like Dickinson, he seemed interested in what wasn’t there, not just the kind of stuff that punched you in the face. That is, he was not an intoxicated loudmouth frequently rattling on about sex or sensationalist nonsense. It would be about four more years before I would develop a minor interest in intoxication. And quite a few before I would be comfortable as a loudmouth outside of the cozy circle of my family and friends.
I finally got to Phillips’ gallery, in Washington, DC, last month. The place has a small, great collection. It’s a funny polygamist cadre of buildings: Phillips’ former house, with a heavy, dark paneled music room where they hold small concerts, and some attached spaces that were built just to display art. I found only a couple of Dove’s paintings, and they weren’t my favorites.
They have a room of Rothkos, which I didn’t know about until I got there. I have been to the Rothko room in London’s Tate Modern. Rothko had ideas about how his work should be displayed. Like Kandinsky, he had ideas that were spiritual and not merely aesthetic. Like what the Guggenheim was supposed to be, a place where light and space were specifically controlled in the hopes that art would do something to you. I’m not sure art needs so much help. But I like the idea of helping it.
The room at the Phillips is small. There is only room for the one bench that is in the middle of the rectangular area. Rothko, after seeing the original space, suggested the bench. (It has actually been moved and recreated with renovations to the place, but the dimensions and layout are the same.) There’s a little plastic-slipped piece of paper on the bench that explains this.
I sat on the bench for a long time. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge Rothko fan. I really like more minimalist paintings in museums, but I would never live with them. My classroom and my house are full of visual stimulation. A bare place doesn’t feel like home to me, not at all, but I need to visit a sleek, bare space from time to time, to settle my head down.
I was feeling hollowed out and cloudy that day, not bad, exactly, just unsettled. I vowed to sit there for AT LEAST FIFTEEN MINUTES, which seemed very brave. I took in the colors. At first had seemed pretty boring, but once you started noticing them, well, that was interesting. There were some subtleties, of course. They were the usual Rothko stuff, big blocks of one color with another behind it, but the colors varied. Browns, reds. They didn’t have any yellow ones. I love me some yellow.
You’re supposed to fall into those paintings, like a pool, and look into the abyss or the heart of God or something. My head felt too full of words and logical progressions and slips of information. I needed to stare at something.
Somebody else came in and walked around and sat next to me. It was a kid, well, a guy younger than me, black. I didn’t really look at him, just saw him out of the corner of my eye. And he didn’t seem to look at me. It was a lot like we were in church. It’s strange to me that my church world and my art world don’t intersect much, in some cases, actively take digs at each other, because an art museum is just like a church, to me. I sit around there and try to clear my head, pay homage, do the rituals.
A sign outside the doorway told people to be quiet in that room, and they were. They came and went, came and went, every five minutes. It’s a small place, and probably rarely crowded, with all those other museums to see in DC. The kid and I sat there and sat there, in the shell of Phillips’ life, a room made out of a section of his home, from a house to something else. We occasionally switched sides of the bench to look at a different painting. Other people came and went.
Note: actual Rothko not pictured. That’s one at MoMA.