“Internal Framing in The Rothko Room”
by Elizabeth Cowgill
Our readings for “Museums and Society” this week centered around the changing conventions of hanging in museums and galleries, and the cultural ideologies that inspired these choices. From the eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries, display styles generally shifted from majestic assemblages that connote political power to arrangements that allowed each work to be viewed for its individual attributes. In the twentieth century, that emphasis on the singularity of the artwork developed into the now-familiar “white cube.” This convention of museum display has been called neutral, sterile, decontextualized, and even masculine relative to the palatial or quasi-domestic arrangements common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Per our course assignment this week, I chose to investigate the way this installation style is applied in the Phillips Collection, where one relatively small room is set aside to house four paintings by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. If, as Carol Duncan proposes, the museum is a site of ritual akin to a cathedral, this room is a small side chapel, set apart both literally and philosophically from the rest of the museum. Dubbed “The Rothko Room,” the space is guarded by a museum attendant to ensure that it does not become overcrowded, creating an even greater sense that one is venturing into sacred territory. I was privileged during my visit to The Rothko Room in that I “experienced” it alone. Reflecting upon Brian O’Doherty’s chapter “Notes on the Gallery Space,” which first defined the “white cube” concept, I realized that the only corrupting body within the room was my own, creating a relatively unmediated encounter with the space enclosed within.
While arranged in the manner of the “white cube,” emptied of all possible distractions from the paintings on view, the room is small to the point of resembling a comfortable domestic setting. Yet the scale of the works, and the awareness they are meant to inspire, are far removed from the banality of the everyday. Each wall within the cube is punctuated by a single, unframed, and monumentally-sized Rothko painting. The room itself provides no educational materials, likely a purposeful avoidance of the didactic in order to provoke subjective experience in the viewer. The room is also so intimately sized that it is impossible to view these massive paintings from afar. The result of this hanging schema is that the paintings are placed at such an overwhelmingly close distance to the viewer that one feels enveloped by them.
The white walls of the gallery space provide a stark contrast against the vibrant colors of the paintings, and each work is given adequate space as to not disrupt the optical experience of the others. The curatorial approach to hanging The Rothko Room therefore is quite different from eighteenth-century conventions where large-scale works would have been placed high on the gallery wall and tilted slightly downwards to optimize viewing. In that “Salon” style of hanging, works were installed directly above and alongside one another, indicating a greater emphasis on the overall view rather than a focus on individual works.
While each painting within The Rothko Room vibrates with its own inner tension, most people who have enjoyed viewing the artist’s work detect spiritual or meditative attributes that extend beyond the materiality of the canvas. This dual tension, as described by O’Doherty, is evident in the protrusion of the canvas from the wall, and counteracted by the paintings’ ability to transport the viewer through a “window” to a spiritual beyond. Each of the paintings on view contains a distinct internal frame through the application a single color that outlines the canvas and separates its disparate planes of color. This framing mechanism pushes one’s view inward, into a spiritual void that evokes a world beyond the paintings’ flat surfaces. The containing walls of the white cube serve not only to neutralize the space, but seem almost to disappear altogether.