Contemplating Rothko

A practice to enhance seeing

Posted May 13, 2015

In 1961-62, Mark Rothko painted a series of murals for Harvard University that were designed, he said, to “encourage contemplation.” Over the decades the paintings faded while on display. Scientists and conservators worked together to create a non-invasive digital projection that restores the depth and vibrancy of the original color. The result of these efforts is a stunning and innovative show at the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums. This novel approach has not been used before for the display of painting. To see the murals in their current state and with enhancement, the museum offers an excellent digital tour,

At the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School, we have been creating workshops to bring mindfulness to staff and the community. Collaborating with Dr. Francesca Bewer, Research Curator for Conservation and Technical Studies Programs at the Harvard Art Museums, and Dr. Mary Schneider Enriquez, Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Curator of the Rothko Exhibition, we put together a workshop called “Contemplating Rothko.”  Francesca began by talking about the history of the murals and the science and technology that has restored them.

I then guided participants in a mindfulness practice designed to enhance seeing and our appreciation of light and color. While most meditations are done with eyes closed, with this practice the eyes are open. It is a meditation that can be used outside in nature, in museums, by artists when they seek inspiration, and by anyone who wants to see more clearly.

  • Start by sitting comfortably with the eyes softly open. Take a few breaths to come into the present moment. Take a few minutes to become attuned to the sounds around you. Then bring your awareness to the sensations of your body sitting.
  • When you’re ready, find your breath. Allow yourself to feel the sensations of each inhalation and each exhalation. If you mind wanders, no problem, just gently bring it back to the breath.
  • Keeping a soft gaze, become aware of your peripheral vision. Take in the light and colors around you. Let yourself rest in the color and light that surrounds you.
  • Moving from a soft gaze to eyes wide open, notice the colors, light, and space with fresh eyes, as though you were a young child, seeing the world for the first time. See if you can bring what meditation teachers call “beginners mind” to this act of seeing.
  • If you like, try breathing in the color and light around you. Poet Stanley Kunitz, writing about Rothko, suggested that we not only see the paintings, but “breathe them.” Let the color wash over you.
  • See if you can open to the experience of color, light, and space. Take time to be fully present. Let yourself feel the light and color. You might also want to appreciate the gift of seeing.
  • Try to bring this increased awareness of light and color into your next activity.

Our workshop participants then took out colored pencils and pads of paper, and spent the next 30 minutes sketching and exploring color. At 4:00pm, the projectors were turned off so that we could see the murals without digital enhancement. (This actually happens every day at that time, as you can see on the museum website mentioned above.)

As we gathered together to discuss our experience, many people commented on how we rarely take the time to really look at the world around us. While the works themselves invite contemplation, we found that the experience was deepened when we could slow down enough to actually take in the color, light, and space of the paintings. One participant quipped, after commenting that she felt more relaxed, “this gives new meaning to restoration.”

Please try out the practice and let us know what you think!

Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School