“Paint me a Rothko.”
How insulting is that? Very. I ask George Rodrigue, an artist with a distinctive style and focused vision to suspend his own direction and copy someone else’s.
Worse, I do this with proof of his disdain. Some twenty years ago a client and friend convinced him to paint a Remington, an eight foot canvas of cowboys and horses set in a dusty western Clint Eastwood background, a painting identifiable as a Rodrigue only by his signature on the back, and a source of such acute humiliation (from a man who rarely, if ever, feels embarrassment), that he refuses to allow me to reproduce the image here.
And yet, even as he lowers his head and shakes it from side to side, he understands my obsession. He too becomes lost in a Rothko (1903-1970), sucked into the layers of tone, transported away from the time of day, from the walls on either side of the canvas, from the (all too familiar) bellyaching of museum visitors:
“What’s the big deal? My kid could paint that.”
Not only am I lost in a Rothko, I’m relaxed, and the feeling rushes back each time I stand before an original painting, similar to if I somehow reproduced the view of this canyon country rock, its changing colors in the western light, and the jillion stars amassed above it, so that it appears outside my own picture window on any given day, and not just during this week’s vacation in southern Utah.
Yet I’m spoiled and selfish! Even as George tells me,
“I know, I know. But it’s hard to paint, Wendy. The layers and layers of oil. It will take weeks to finish a canvas, and I’ll have to paint outside, and I’m just not up to it, not yet.”
Still, I wait, knowing he doesn’t want to do it, and knowing how the thick, wet oil paints affect him:
“It’s the only way,” he says. “I can’t use the new paints.”
Lest you think I’m cruel, please understand: I don’t really expect him to paint this. It’s more like a dream, something we talk about from time to time,
“How about a Rothko for Christmas this year, George?”
In truth, there are paintings of George’s, all his own, that inspire similar feelings in me. For example, recently he completed the large canvas Green is Green, Not Blue (2010, 36×48, acrylic on canvas), a stunning work painted to the frame, and blending the Rodrigue Oak and Blue Dog with an even stronger subject: light.
The changes in tone lose me in a way similar to a Rothko, as the color shifts from dark to light and back again, as though the dog is pasted onto the landscape, and the tree is pasted onto a mood. In person, this painting is not just beautiful, it’s an escape, a jewel, reminding me of an earlier Rodrigue painting, my favorite, the one I’ve been lost in for years and write about here.
I find it interesting that in both Rothko and Rodrigue, the colors belie the result. Neither artist paints with the pastels of relaxation nor the softness of a ‘pretty picture.’ To the contrary, they seek intensity on their canvases, in George’s case growing brighter and brighter, indeed frustrating him at times that his colors cannot reach the strong hues within his head; and in Rothko’s case growing darker and darker, as evidenced by the Rothko Chapel.
Because he works mostly in acrylic these days, George doesn’t layer paint like he did for years with his Cajun and early Blue Dog paintings. He laments often that he misses this type of work. The water-based oils appease him when needed, although he tells me that these new paints are challenging in large scale (and would never work for a Rodrigue-Rothko). Only traditional oils provide these depths of color, a medium, due to his illness, probably lost to him forever. (see the post Oil Paint or Acrylic?)
And yet, over the years George has grown comfortable with acrylics, able to accomplish things with this paint he originally thought impossible (such as in Green is Green, Not Blue, above). Furthermore, his recent work in water-based oils achieves a certain quality reminiscent of those mesmerizing layers and textures, the necessary ingredient if one is to get lost in a painting, to forget the context, the walls, even the subject.
Pictured above: She Set Me Off Like a Volcano (detail) 2009, 48×60, oil on canvas
Coming this Saturday: “Alligator Crossing”