What I learned from Rothko

By William Seidman I had the good fortune last weekend to attend a fascinating lecture by Christopher Rothko about the paintings of his father, Mark Rothko, which are now on exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. Rothko is known for abstract fields of color arranged in various rectangles, which often seem to float on the canvas. It is hard to understand what makes this great art by itself but, listening, I began to understand the evolution and the meaning of Rothko’s work, and I came away loving the art. In very simple, incredibly lay and personal terms, Rothko the son described how his father, Rothko the painter, began his painting career with a focus on figures in the foreground of paintings, following more classical painting traditions. He would have figures prominent, with highly structured and increasingly colorful backgrounds. Over time, he became much more interested in the backgrounds until eventually he was painting only colorful backgrounds without any figures or even a foreground that invited people to put themselves in the pictures. We, the viewers, are the figures in his pictures. Rothko meant this as a statement about the fragmentation of society into little pieces (the individual figures) and a commentary on  the effort to preserve the greater context of life — including birth and death. I was struck by similar tensions in organizations: so many are focused on making everything transactional, micro and measured. Their attention is on the crisp figures in the foreground. But in focusing so intensely on the transactions, organizations are losing their larger context, which might be called culture, but I think it is some intangible that is a holism beyond this, like Rothko’s paintings. Cerebyte occupies a sort of middle group between the transactions and the context. Transformations are certainly more than figures in the front of the picture but involve sweeping changes that could affect the context of the organization. But the context of the organization is still too often hidden and is really the determiner of the quality of life. We need to let go of the foreground and contemplate our context more.]]>

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