Photograph of Mark Rothko. Gelatin silver print, 9 15/16 × 8 1/8" (25.3 × 20.6 cm). Photographic Archive, Artists and Personalities. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Digital image © MoMA, NY. Photo: Bernard Gotfryd

To celebrate the first installment in MoMA’s 2023 Collection Exhibition series—Mark Rothko, opening on January 6 in Gallery 403—we share this reflection about looking at the artist’s work from Museum staff member Marie La Viña. On the first Friday of every month—when the Museum stays open until 8:00 p.m. and offers free admission to New Yorkers—these exhibitions will invite audiences to continue to explore MoMA’s dynamic collection and connect with art and ideas from more places and perspectives than ever before.

Sometime after the extended isolation of the early pandemic, I came across Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944), in which two figures appear in a bright, Surrealist landscape. A lobular heart blooms in one. An eye-like, blue eddy swims in the other. They seem to be turning. All around them lines extend and taper, waver and unfurl, spiral and stellate. They are limpid, solid, opaque. A sense of the sea. I am mesmerized by the whole of it, this scene: its arcs and edges, geometries and biomorphic forms, feet and tails, intimations of the primordial and vestigial, suggesting something of the mess of life. Two figures, turning.

For a time I could count on one hand the faces I’d seen unmasked over the past year. I lived alone in the lockdown. Intimacies were occasional. Because we felt safer outdoors, the beach had become a singular respite and distraction that summer, a place to be with friends again, to swim and lie next to each other on the sand. I came to Slow Swirl in those days, returning to the reopened galleries. Even now I sometimes wait for a pause in the day to slip downstairs to see it. I like to imagine it the way the artist’s son Christopher describes it, hanging over the couch in the family’s brownstone. A painting of his parents.

I think of Mark Rothko more than halfway through his life and still beginning. Having just met his future wife, Mel of Mel Ecstatic, the painting’s alternate name. He’s still largely unrecognized as an artist, in his early forties, recently divorced from his first wife and living modestly in New York. The color field paintings are to come, still years away; they are not, in 1944, inevitable.

“I think this was actually a very joyful period for him,” says Christopher Rothko. We know, from the vantage of the future, that Mark Rothko and Mel Beistle will marry, have children, travel and argue and live together for two and a half decades, and then their partnership, too, will dissolve. Rothko will abandon the figure gradually, then entirely by the 1950s, finding a definitive visual language in abstraction, the idiom he would work in for the rest of his life.

Though I had seen images of Slow Swirl on a screen before, I was surprised by the joy that seemed to radiate from the work itself, in me. Yet something about the bright then muted colors, the fainter strokes, the nebulous pair at its center, feels unfinished. “He is really struggling to get his voice heard,” says Christopher Rothko. Now and then I try to slip away to hear it.

If we spend whole afternoons in galleries, passing through rooms where little else speaks to us, what are we listening for? What about Rothko speaks to us? Particularly in the classic abstractions, in the absence of references to the perceivable world? According to the artist, “a time came” in the aftermath of the Second World War “when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.” There is no likeness to recognize in these paintings; ideas are pared down to color. The work “is so dangerously close to nothing that it is easily rendered irrelevant when approached or presented unsympathetically; its initial grip on us can be tenuous at best,” writes the artist’s son.

Mark Rothko. Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea. 1944

Mark Rothko. Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea. 1944

Still, one stands before a Rothko and recognizes its human scale, notices the presence of his hand in the feathered, uneven brushstrokes and the irregular forms, in their soft, diaphanous edges, in the canvas sealed with rabbit-skin glue and layered with oils and handmade pigment mixed with resin or egg. By turns bold, smudged, blended, hazy, translucent, the layers capture a sense of time, in variations of matte and gloss and opacity, in thin washes of paint full of movement. Certain forms are obscured so that others emerge. Colors hover and recede, flicker and glow, shining through each other. Brilliant yellows and reds, vivid blues give way to deep greens and somber violets, the glaze of dark from his later palette. All disclose human gestures.

Mark Rothko. No. 10. 1950 (dated on reverse 1949)

Mark Rothko. No. 10. 1950 (dated on reverse 1949)

The experience is of a meeting, and a sense—as with certain momentous encounters—that it took an entire life, Rothko’s whole career thus far, to arrive at this work. I bring all of my attention to No. 10 (1950), noticing the blue holding it together, the yellow, the gray. Light smudges, frayed edge. The passage of red between rectangles: a conduit through which the colors brush and flicker toward each other. One soft corner of amorphous gray seeming almost to flutter off the canvas.

Glimmers of biography: an image of the artist as a boy in Dvinsk, before the journey with his mother and sister to Ellis Island. Then across America to Portland, Oregon, when he was 10 and hadn’t yet learned English. The moment he stumbled on a life drawing class at the Art Students League on 57th Street. It was a short walk from The Museum of Modern Art, where he would see Matisse’s The Red Studio—of which he would say, “When you looked at that painting, you became that color, you became totally saturated with it”—in 1949, the year he began to explore pure abstraction.

I bring myself to No. 10, to its openness and ambiguity, its soft focus and blue underpainting. I have a conversation with myself. Rothko mediates. It isn’t entirely conscious nor fully verbal. For a moment, it quiets me just to be there. A relief at the close of a year filled with so much noise, where I was reticent amid the clamor, wondering what I could say. Though Rothko had written extensively on his philosophy of art, producing in the early 1940s the essays that would become The Artist’s Reality, he wrote less as the work moved toward abstraction. “There is more power in telling little than telling all,” he wrote. “Silence is so accurate.” Visitors come and go through the gallery. We linger, look a while, mostly stand in silence.

Marie La Viña grew up in Manila and Los Angeles. She works at The Museum of Modern Art.