Meditation on a Master

Experience art in a new way.

Posted Jun 26, 2018

Mark Rothko, one of the most evocative painters of the 20th century, wanted viewers to have an intimate encounter with his paintings, to immerse themselves in his work, to experience each painting from “within the picture.” A painting, he argued, is not “a picture of an experience, it is an experience.”

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, there are currently 11 masterpieces on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Bringing together my training in Art History, Visual Arts, Mindfulness, and Psychology, I have been exploring new ways to help viewers understand and appreciate art. With the help of Justina Crawford, Manager of Lectures and Courses at the MFA, I designed a workshop that would help participants have the immersive experience that Rothko extolled.  

While I’m not a Rothko scholar, I am a Rothko enthusiast. It is hard to truly appreciate an artist without some grounding in his life and history. To give the workshop participants a glimpse into Rothko’s life and work, I immersed myself in "Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out," an excellent, inspiring book by Christopher Rothko, his son, which I quote, in part, in the paragraphs below.

Painter Brice Marden, whose work was deeply influenced by Rothko, spoke of the paintings as  “Presences,” a concept I built upon in the workshop. Rothko painted his vision of what it is to be human and alive, filled with joy and sorrow, full of fears and hopes, aspiration and despair. The paintings are an invitation to turn inward. They very much have a presence and seem to speak to our inner world. Mark Rothko believed that viewing a painting is an interaction between two people. To understand a painting is to understand what the painting helps us see in ourselves. The paintings invite us to be quiet, to listen. They can take us to a deep emotional place—many people have had the experience of weeping in front of these works of art. This is the essence of a Rothko, and in some ways it parallels the experience of mindfulness meditation. We are continually exploring things we haven’t seen, looking again at what we thought we knew.

 I designed the following meditative experience for my class, but you can try it in front of any work of art.

  • Start by sitting comfortably, letting yourself settle and relax.
  • Slow down, stop, put away your phone. Don’t take a selfie.
  • Become aware of the space around you, of the ambient sounds in the room.
  • Bring your attention to the painting in front of you. Let your gaze soften.
  • Let yourself stop. Let yourself be with this painting fully. Breathe.
  • Feel the presence of this work of art.
  • When your thoughts wander, just return to looking at the color, the form, the movement, the light in the painting.
  • Consider the words of the poet John Taggart, who wrote “Slow Song for Mark Rothko” (1981): "To breathe and stretch one’s arms again/To breathe through the mouth to breathe in."
  •  If the museum guards don’t stop you, try stretching your arms as you breathe.
  • What is it like to open to this painting? Rothko believed that paintings yield what we put in.  Stay with your experience.
  • Christopher Rothko wrote that to communicate with a Rothko is to feel the “substance of our humanness.”
  •  Let yourself rest in the quiet of your communion with the work. Take it in.

To deepen the experience, I asked my class to sit in front of a painting they connected with and spend 10-15 minutes sketching. Most museums allow you to work with colored pencils. Enjoy the quiet, enjoy the color, take in the peacefulness.

At the end of the workshop, we gathered to discuss our experience. “I saw so much,” one person commented. “I saw things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” another person remarked. “The painting came alive for me, it was a portal into a different universe.”

Rothko’s work still speaks to us. He wanted art to bring us to the realm of the chill down the spine, the ache in the pit of the stomach, the tragedy of the human condition.


Rothko, C. (2015). Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out. New Haven: Yale University Press