How To Explain Rothko To A Colorblind Lacrosse Player

Problem Statement:

You and the Subject are standing in the modern art wing of the kind of university art museum that was formerly a society lady’s second home. (Imagine exposed plumbing and moss-wallpapered walls.)

Suppose a few other nontrivial obstacles. For example, it’s mid-August, the kind of weather in which people put on clothing when they go indoors. You want to mention this because you imagine the Subject, a square-jawed Georgian, would then offer you (singular) his jacket. You do not want to mention this because he might also suggest you (plural) leave.

At 3:22 pm EST, the Subject is standing before Untitled (Red, Blue over Black), Oil on Canvas, 1956. Brows half-furrowed, his expression strains between constipation and laughter.

Background Information:

Two weeks prior. You meet the Subject on the first day of debate camp. He is a mysterious year older than your not-quite-sixteen, and charms you with the story of how he won the Atlanta regional championships with a reading of The Lorax. He has a girlfriend named Madison and the bluest eyes you have ever seen.

One hour earlier. When he picks you up from your dorm, the Subject is a vision of easy grace in a mauve jacket and seersucker pants.This is not a date. He holds open doors and guides you by the elbow. This is not a date. He will not let you pay.

Five minutes earlier. Easy conversation topics: The absurdity of a newsletter for a museum with seven rooms. How hot it (the weather) is. Whether you are more bothered by Sanjay P__’s lecture monotone or the suspicious crust on his fleece vest.

One minute earlier. Rothko is your favorite painter, you tell the Subject. You are so glad this shitty little museum has Red on Black on loan from MoMA. Look—

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red, Blue over Black), Oil on Canvas, 1956

Solution 1:

Say this: Think of the colors as interchangeable. One is stoicism, the other passion; one angles deep with space and one flickers like fire. Forget the color and see the movement, how each presses against black. It doesn’t matter which is which.

Appeal to his sensibilities. Use words like athletic grace. Movement. The aggression of the brush against canvas. The dedication of the man for all those years.

Look up from beneath your eyelashes. Bat them.

Ask the Subject to imagine how patient the master must have been, layering swirls upon swirls, waiting for an impossible magic to emerge.

Solution 2:

Realize the answer lies in the colors: how the red stretches into the black, how the blue clings below. How each slips over the canvas’s rough edge. Think of it as an expansiveness. You can’t explain the colors but neither can you explain what you mean to call it expansiveness.

Say none of this. Say nothing, too, when he reaches over the rickety Starbucks table thirty-two minutes later to show you his hands: Here is where I cut myself and lost feeling in two fingers. Prod them with a fork as he asks. Laugh on cue and let him pay for your coffee. Keep your own hands folded on your lap.

Give up Rothko for now. Focus on your studies. Learn to defeat any argument and its opposite, to choose a color and claim it for your own. Even Sanjay tells you how much you’ve improved. Return to the museum on the last day of camp after the Subject has left for home.

Years later, forget his name but never the clash of red seersucker against his puke-green shoes.


Here is the border between red and blue; look how thick and dark the wall.

Look again. Posed as opposites, they do not oppose. Told to be squares, they streak and glow. They are porous with the black. They become. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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