Internal Framing in The Rothko Room

“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.


The Rothko Room in The Phillips Collection. Source:



“Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection”: An Inaccessible Highlights Reel

“Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection”: An Inaccessible Highlights Reel

by Emily Peikin

Last weekend, I visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course. Our assignment for the week asked us to critically examine how art museums convey the significance and value of their permanent collections to visitors. Since our readings for the week discussed two examples of collectors’ museums—the Frick Collection and the Freer—the Hirshhorn Museum served as a good case study. Although the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is part of the Smithsonian Institution, it originated as the collection of Joseph Hirshhorn. A block of informational wall text outside of the entrance to the exhibition “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection,” which presents a small but impressive sampling of the institution’s holdings, informs visitors that Hirshhorn “was a passionate and knowledgeable collector” who “amassed art by some of the greatest figures of modernism, from Auguste Rodin to Willem de Kooning.” Visitors subsequently learn that the collection includes works that “are considered masterpieces by art historians.” This ensures that even if they lack knowledge of modern and contemporary art, they will feel obligated to be impressed by what they see. This introductory information primes visitors to view the art they are about to encounter in a positive light by invoking the discerning eye of an individual collector and the approval of an unnamed body of experts. Furthermore, its verbosity contrasts with the sparse wall labels displayed next to individual works. It is also important to note that there is no audio guide for this exhibition, which would have made its contents more understandable to the general public.

When one enters the galleries of this exhibition, the first major display is a selection of works by Willem de Kooning and Alberto Giacometti. This gallery presents narratives of individual greatness, including the greatness of Hirshhorn as a collector and the greatness of de Kooning and Giacometti as artists. In addition, the works throughout the galleries of this exhibition are all spaced far apart from one another, and many of the sculptures are displayed on pedestals or within glass vitrines. This emphasizes their individual significance and presents them as objects worthy of contemplation. Most of the wall labels in the galleries contain little descriptive information. Instead, they include the artist’s name, his or her nationality, his or her years of birth and death, the title of the work, the year(s) of its creation, the medium, and the work’s origin, which is often listed as “Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.” There are one or two works within each gallery that have extensive wall text, but their selection seems completely arbitrary. This series of galleries combines works that Hirshhorn himself acquired with ones that the museum has recently added to its collection, and this juxtaposition suggests that the museum continues to pursue Hirshhorn’s original vision.

One architectural element that encourages visitors to consider the importance of the collection is the shape of the building itself. The galleries on each floor connect to form a large ring, which forces visitors to circumambulate in an almost devotional manner. This is a striking example of scholar Carol Duncan’s model of the museum as a ritual space and site of secular devotion. This configuration also engenders feelings of suspense and excitement; the visitor is unable to see the contents of the next gallery due to the fact that it is not immediately ahead of him or her, nor is it framed by a doorway. Ultimately, the exhibition “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection” presents a uniquely temporary arrangement of a mere sliver of the museum’s holdings. An exhibition like “Masterworks” is thereby far from representative of the institution’s holdings as a whole, but instead presents a shiny and sanitized “highlights reel” of sorts. However, the overall lack of informational materials arguably renders this exhibition incomprehensible to individuals with little background in art history.



Alberto Giacometti, Dog, 1951

Commercial Culture in the Museum

As part of Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course this semester, students are asked to write a short weekly response paper in which they think critically about the musuem as a physical space, a cultural institution, and as a political, economic, and social entity. Below, first year MA student Samantha Rhodes shares her analysis of commercial culture in the National Gallery of Art and the Louvre:

The National Gallery has been the sight of many joyful and encouraging visits, however, one aspect has always been a little unsettling. The location of the Museum Cafe, also known as the Garden Cafe, within the middle of the museum is an interesting, yet somewhat problematic feature. Leanne McTavish’s essay “Shopping in the Museum? Consumer spaces and the Redefinition of the Louvre”, which analyzes the relation between the Louvre museum and the underground shopping mall Carrousel de Louvre, gave me some tools to analyze my previous experience at the National Gallery. As she points out the Carrousel de Louvre is located on the lower level of the museum under the galleries. By noting the lower level and separation, McTavish analyzes the tension between ideal attendees associated with the exhibitions, and the other attendees, who are associated with the more physical pleasures of consumerism. Essentially her argument assumes a class distinction and ideal viewership between the two areas located within the Louvre. After reading McTavish’s analysis, I began critically thinking about not only the Garden Cafe located in the NGA, but the Cascade Cafe, which is a glorified title for a general food court. Although I do not have much of an issue with food spaces within a museum, there is a question of the differences between the Garden Cafe and the general food court. I would argue that there are social distinctions between the two spaces. The Garden Cafe is located on the Western side of the museum and is tucked in the middle of exhibits. A viewer who enters through the 7th Street side of the building must also pass the cafe on the way to the East Wing and the general food court. The prices of the Garden Cafe run high, with entrees being above 20 dollars. While in the food court prices are more economical. Not only do the soaring prices denote a difference, but the location of the Garden Cafe amidst, not separated from, the rest of the museum recalls similar questions found in the McTavish article.

The Carrousel du Louvre (the food court and shopping center) was separated from the rest of the museum on a lower level, thus signifying the status of the structure in comparison to a more “civilized” culture located in the exhibitions on the upper levels. The National Gallery has made this observation even more obvious. The Garden Cafe not only caters to more elite individuals, but it is also located close in proximity to the exhibits. Thus one can have a pleasant, expensive meal while also being encouraged by the general splendor of the NGA. The Cascade Cafe, or the food court, was built for a mass amount of people, thus the architecture is not as grand, nor are the reproductions of pantings that feature food products. These paintings were situated on simple columns, and their quality is less than ideal, thus adding even more of an inferior air when compared to the pristine Garden Cafe. McTavish makes an argument that there is tension between two museum ideals, one that is meant to attract a more diverse public, and one that worries that this public will consist of people that museum officials have long sought to exclude. (184) Although the argument does not directly translate to my observation, I do believe the tension between the two cafes exist, and I believe this tension is noted by numerous guests to the museum. Even upon my first visit to the NGA, I was disturbed by the location of the Garden Cafe, it was as if the visitors having lunch were themselves a spectacle, an ideal to live up to. Until that ideal is fulfilled, I must go to a lower level where food is more affordable and the exhibits are far away. The intriguing tension between consumer and exhibition space proved an interesting analysis inspired by McTavish’s example from the Louvre in Paris.


First year MA student, Samantha Rhodes, poses in front of Frederic Church’s Niagara.

Faculty Focus: Andrea Pearson presents her research in Belgium.

Over the semester break, Dr. Pearson presented aspects of her project on Netherlandish besloten hofjes (enclosed gardens, in triptych form) at a three-day international conference called “Imaging Utopia: New Perspectives on Northern Renaissance Art.” The conference took place in Belgium. It brought scholars together to discuss varieties of utopianism in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, the initial printing of which was achieved in Leuven. The first day of the conference focused exclusively on besloten hofjes; attendance was approximately 200. Dr. Pearson’s presentation explored utopianism in a hofje (illustrated) from a hospital in Mechelen, then the governmental seat of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. Dr. Pearson argued that the work helped to mediate contentious positions on female and male monastic enclosure that were taken up by the hospital’s personnel. This hofje is among seven works of the kind that are undergoing conservation after their designation as Vlaamse Topstukken (Flemish Masterpieces), a term that designates works of the highest artistic and cultural value for Belgium (Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is also on the list). Dr. Pearson’s presentation led to an invitation to contribute to a major publication celebrating the conservation project and the permanent reinstallation of the hofjes in the newly renovated Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen in March of 2018.

In a forthcoming article Dr. Pearson argues that another hofje from the Mechelen hospital was commissioned by the parents of a blind nun, with whom they are portrayed in its painted wings. The hofje asserted meritorious status in piety that claimed salvation for all three members of the familial triad, by invoking pious practices tied not to sight but to the other senses. Such assertions were crucial, for the daughter’s visual impairment rendered her and her parents spiritually suspect. The essay, therefore, redefines sensory piety as socially persuasive. This approach departs from previous investigations on religion and the senses in this period, which focus primarily on interiority. Check out the article after its publication online this spring, in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (!


Mechelen, Crucifixion Hofje, ca. 1525-28, polychromed wood, silk, paper, bone, wire, paint, and other materials in a wood case, 42.9 x 35.3 x 7.7 inches. Musea & Erfgoed Mechelen, inv. BH/3, on long-term loan from the Augustinian Sisters of Mechelen.



Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Juliet Bellow to give two presentations in London in the upcoming week.

Dr. Juliet Bellow will be giving two presentations in London this upcoming week. On Monday, January 23rd, Dr. Bellow will give a paper for a study day at the Courtauld Gallery titled “Hand Dance: Drawing as Choreography in Rodin’s Cambodian Dancers.” This paper follows the approaching closing of the Courtauld Gallery’s recent exhibition “Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement.” Dr. Juliet Bellow’s previous catalogue essay for the Courtauld Gallery exhibition was called “groundbreaking” by Apollo Magazine, citing her suggestion that Rodin’s admiration for dance dovetailed ‘with the most radical dimensions of Rodin’s sculptural practice.’

On Tuesday January  24th, Dr. Bellow will give a talk at the Center for the Study of Dance at the University of Roehampton.  In this paper, titled “Beware of plaster: Auguste Rodin’s drawings of the Cambodian Royal Ballet,” Dr. Bellow considers why Rodin chose to privilege the pencil over the chisel to convey his perceptions of the Cambodian Royal Ballet, and how that choice affected Rodin’s carefully constructed public image.

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Joanne Allen travels to Rome to present a joint paper with colleague Dr. Michael Gromotka of Freie Universität, Berlin.

Dr. Joanne Allen and her colleague, Dr. Michael Gromotka of Freie Universität, Berlin, presented their joint paper “Crowdsourcing the past: The Society for the Study of the Church Interior collaborative online research database,” on November 3rd 2016 at the Ècole Française De Rome.

Dr. Allen is interested in the nature of the relationship between recurring church reform movements and architectural space and how the usage of church buildings change in response to new liturgical norms. In order to understand these broad questions, a large amount of data is needed.

This paper introduced the Society for the Study of the Church Interior and their collaborative database project which seeks to collect the still scattered data regarding the development of spatial dispositions and aesthetic treatments of walls and other surfaces in churches. This paper also discussed the issue of terminology within this database. For example, how many different types of rood screen are there and what should we call them? Should terms discovered in historical sources be used? How many subtly different types of ‘alteration’ were applied to church furnishings (e.g. ‘partially demolished’; ‘remake proposed’)? Lastly, this paper discussed underlying tensions between devising an accurate, workable list of terms and subjecting the information to modern, interpretative judgments.

Another exiting aspect of this paper was that Dr. Allen and Dr. Gromotka encouraged the involvement of potential participants in this ongoing database project.

Congratulations and well done to Dr. Allen, we look forward to further information on this exciting collaborative project!

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Helen Langa presents her paper “Framing Justice. Modernism and Social Advocacy in American Visual Arts and Dance, 1929-1945.”

Dr. Helen Langa presented a paper in October at a symposium in Chicago titled “Framing Justice. Modernism and Social Advocacy in American Visual Arts and Dance, 1929-1945.” The Symposium was held at Loyola University in Chicago.

There were three panels with pairs of presenters that responded to issues of racial oppression, gender oppression, and economic oppression. Dr. Langa’s talk was in the session on racial oppression; it was  titled “Respect and Resistance: The NAACP, the CPUSA, and Modernist Artists’ Contributions to the Struggle for ‘Negro’ Rights, 1929 to 1945”.

She focused on the roles that two organizations, the NAACP and the CPUSA, played in influencing visual artists to take up themes that resisted white racism, promoted black equality, and affirmed a positivist vision of black individuals and their contributions to American history. She argued that artists used a diverse array of realist and modernist styles to portray contemporary individuals and issues.  While the NAACP emphasized works that promoted respect for African Americans, both white and some black artists drew on Communist ideals to create works that explored contemporary resistance to racism and support for racially-integrated solutions in political and workplace organizing.