Love Letters to Rothko

Lightning Talk
Tim Svenonius, USA

SFMOMA recently launched a program which provides an opportunity for visitors to share their experience using pencils and postcards. Visitors are instructed to draw or describe something that impressed them during their visit; this directive is sometimes followed, often ignored, but the results provide a vivid window into the minds of those who participate.
Blank postcards and pencils are made available in a room between galleries; completed cards can be dropped into wall-mounted ballot boxes. A selection of cards is displayed on the wall in the same room; more highlights are posted regularly to the museum’s Facebook stream.
Responses can be profusely positive, and occasionally downright confrontational. A vast and varied expanse sprawls between those extremes, but in the steady influx of responses we find certain emergent trends. Since participants aren’t likely to see contributions from others, we can be sure most drawings are conceived independently. Yet, they can exhibit remarkable consistency–staff who monitor the steady stream of contributions have marveled at the emergence of genres and sub-genres.
One trend is what we’re calling Love Letters to Rothko’s No. 14 (1960). These follow a fairly standard format: the painting, a popular favorite in the collection, is depicted as installed, dominating a wall. A person or a couple sits serenely on the bench facing the painting, as though entranced. These drawings capture the painting’s tranquilizing spell, and surely attest to a firsthand experience.
Another genre within the corpus is the “I don’t get it” form (IDGI, hereafter).  Like love letters to Rothko, they follow a fairly predictable format. A figure stands in front of an artwork, sometimes scratching their chin, or arms folded, with the words “I don’t get it” inscribed. Sometimes the source of bafflement is shown: a one-color canvas or a set of scribbly marks.
If we choose to decipher the IDGI cards, what message should we take from them–a general vote against monochrome paintings or painterly abstraction?  We may conclude that many visitors don’t know what to make of all-black or all-white paintings, or paintings consisting of scribbly marks. One could go so far as to say that they may feel stupid in the presence of works they don’t understand, and that being made to feel stupid provokes hostility and resentment. But there is something more complex at hand if the visitor expresses their point of view by drawing a cartoon, which by some measures attests to genuine engagement.
A genre related to the “I don’t get it” cards are the “I could do that” drawings (ICDT). These usually show a figure in front of a work (monochrome or scribbly) saying “I could do that.” but a sub-genre within this group adds the retort “why don’t you?”
In a spectrum that runs from glowing, love-letter adulation to annoyed alienation, these smirky “why don’t you” cards create an ambiguous kink in the quantifiable arc. Are the authors of these drawings the defenders of mute monochromes and painterly abstractions? Have they recently matured from their “I could do that” phase? We would love to know the answers, but of course the deciphering of these cards is a difficult task, not so different from deciphering contemporary paintings. This lightning talk uses a selection of these postcards and pairs them with some of the complex questions they provoke.