Photo: Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao
Right now at the Museum of Modern Art, you can go into “Abstract Expressionist New York,” a mind-boggling show drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, and be surrounded by eight of the knee-buckling Zen-television spiritual wormholes of Mark Rothko. Here you can experience painting as it bypasses language, forms mysterious patterns of meaning with texture, form, color, shape, and surface. He combines the majesty of Cézanne’s mountains and the quietude of Chardin’s kitchens. First you see simple floating squares and overlapping rectangles of smoky space; then you feel them penetrate into your cerebral cortex, making you believe that you can taste air, hear color, feel other people’s thoughts, and know the secret language of abstraction.
Once you recover, you can walk just a few feet into another gallery, where your heart may start racing as your retinas are ravished by eight Jackson Pollock paintings. It’s a real “no one gets out of here alive” experience: harrowing, thrilling, strange. The work in this room builds up to Pollock’s shocking yet simple revelation that the drip alone—painting without touching brush to canvas—can at once return art to the caves and advance it a century. Start with Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, and you can be taken back 60 years and left there to fend for yourself, as young Americans are coming out of the Second World War and heading into even more unpredictable waters, redefining what art and the self and their future might be. I’ve gotten stuck here for hours, my senses flickering as if in suspended animation.
If you still have it in you after those two hits of adrenaline and lyric poetry wear off, head next door, where seven paintings by Barnett Newman hang, and be wafted into a sort of Arcadian garden, a place where everything seems to empty out of art except the need and drive to make and see it. The experience here begins with his drop-dead-obvious yet transcendent Vir Heroicus Sublimis, the reddest painting ever made. Newman is giving up all ideas of virtuoso drawing, painting, composition, color—everything. It is the sight of a painter laying all his artistic cards on the art-historical table and going all the way with the almost-monochrome. Newman’s hoping that simple divisions in space, some zips and lines, might ricochet in the mind, go deep, turn incantatory, and allow viewers to think big thoughts about scale, size, the visual field, and the architecture of life. Along the way, he reminds us why we are here.