Talking To Strangers About Mark Rothko’s No. 61

“Which color seems to recede the most?”

The man in the flannel suit shrugs, and then extends a finger. “That one.” He’s pointing to the slate gray band across the bottom third of Mark Rothko’s 1953 painting, No. 61—which is the one I find myself returning to again and again, during every shift, even without visitors in tow.

“Let’s move closer.”

We walk forward until our visual field is suffused with a pasture of blue. This happened to me for the first time, albeit in gold and orange, when I was 13. I remember sitting on a bench in front of the thing for twenty minutes, feeling sad and pissed off at the same time.

“How about now?”

He shrugs again. “Now it’s the blue.” I study him while he studies the painting. I have never actually seen anyone wear a flannel suit in Los Angeles.

Rothko once, quite famously, said: Any picture which does not provide the environment in which the breath of life can be drawn does not interest me.

I paraphrase, poorly: “Rothko wanted his paintings to breathe.”

The man shrugs again, but smiles. The alternate swellings of gray and blue—the shifts in perception, the groundlessness—are not lost on him. It’s never lost on anyone. Anyone who stands in front of this painting long enough can feel the shape and frequency of every neuron ever convened in the service of blind rage, orgasm, suicidal boredom, or illicit cerebral voyaging.

“It’s the blue around the edge that protrudes the most.” Three generations of people whose names I don’t know are assembled in front of No. 61: a woman, her father, and her son.

“Okay, let’s move closer.”

We walk forward, and the woman nods. “It changed. Now it’s the blue in the middle.”

A middle-aged couple from Orange County: “The purple. Up top.”

Usually I get home around 4:00 or 4:30 and spend a few hours alone, staring into my laptop. You know this because that’s exactly what I’m doing when you get home from work hours later. I barely look up. “Hi!” you say, trying to get my attention.

“Hi.” I nod, but my gaze remains fixed on my RSS feed.

“Rothko wanted his paintings to breathe.” I say this to two young women on a church field trip because I don’t want to attempt to paraphrase the first part of the quote:

Any shape or area which has not the pulsating concreteness of real flesh and bones, its vulnerability to pleasure or pain, is nothing at all.

Even when no one is walking through the galleries with me, I still make the same stops. It’s my invisible tour. I stop an arm’s length from No. 61 and immerse myself in the unreliable border between blue and gray, where sharp flecks of indigo hint at a vibrant, desolate substructure.



I can feel the security officer’s eyes on me as I move in closer, my nose hovering inches away from the canvas. I close my eyes and feel your back rise and fall under my cheek. You’re asleep. You’re either saying goodbye or greeting me or asleep, and it’s been that way for weeks. I don’t say anything, though. I sling an arm over your ribs and squeeze. I kiss your neck, and you sigh.

When I open my eyes, alone, I see it all stacked up in front of me: ebbing, rushing forward, shaking. But when someone else is around, I prefer to keep my distance and ask the easy questions.

“Which color seems to recede the most?”

Most people say gray. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Mark Rothko

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