My SAM Favorites: Orange on Red

No. 4 in a series.

Lynn Emanuel's poem "The Sleeping" was the first thing that came to mind when I saw Mark Rothko's 1956 oil painting Orange on Red, a gift from Jon and Mary Shirley in the new Simonyi Special Exhibition Gallery. Imagining that her parents shared a building with the painter in the '40s, Emanuel wrote, "That is the wonderful thing about art/It can bring back the dead/It can wake the sleeping/As it might have late that night/When my father and mother made love above Rothko/Who lay in the dark thinking 'Roses, roses, roses.'" The nearly 5-foot-tall by 3-foot-wide painting is composed of three supersaturated blocks of color on a canvas painted in flesh tones: a deep sunset orange and a blood red, separated by a fat smear of pink that brought up those roses. Their hazy delineations are created through multilayered washes, giving the whole an illusion of glow. Another of SAM's Rothkos, #10, also glows, with green edges like agates or sea glass, but looking at Orange on Red is a less soothing experience. It's arousing, almost exhausting. The New York School painter might not have approved of my connecting it to a poem, since Orange on Red was made at the point in his career where he named works by color or number. He's quoted as having said, "Silence is so accurate." But for me, finding multiple meanings (and memories) in someone else's creation is another wonderful thing about art.

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