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Loss and Redemption





Discussion Questions




Classroom Activities

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Loss and Redemption
Overview
For the artists in this section, including, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Philip Guston, and Mark Rothko, the reality of living in an imperfect world is tempered by the tentative, symbolic promise of redemption through art. The historic Jewish experience, and the framing of its religious stories, has been marked by loss and redemption, and the hope of returning to the Promised Land. The idea of a Promised Land extends itself into the artistic process, as artists of all backgrounds search for an ideal subject, medium, or style that will ensure a kind of creative redemption.
Mark Rothko

Marc Rothko
No. 14, 1960, 1960. Oil on canvas. 114 1/2 x 105 5/8 in. Collection SFMOMA, Helen Crocker Russell Fund purchase. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Ben Blackwell

Discussion Questions

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Discussion Questions

  • What do you notice about the colors in this work of art? Rothko was particularly interested in the color red. What does this color evoke for you?
  • Rothko is interested in the viewer’s emotional response to a painting. What response do you have when looking at this work? How might the scale and color scheme contribute to your own response to this work?
  • Rothko’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries, but also in a chapel dedicated to his work. How might the experience of viewing these pieces in a chapel be different from seeing them in a museum?



Classroom Activities

  • Art Making: Color, Emotion, and Context
    Ask students to choose two colors that evoke an emotion for them. Using oil pastels or paint, have them combine the colors in a Rothko-inspired drawing or painting, experimenting with the layering and juxtaposing of colors as Rothko did. Then, install the artworks in your classroom to create a gallery, taking into consideration lighting, music, scale, or anything else that might help create an emotionally evocative experience. Invite neighboring classes to visit your installation, and ask for their responses.
  • Writing: Color and Symbolism
    The color red held a special significance for Mark Rothko. Ask students to look carefully at No. 14, 1960. Have them write down on index cards or Post-it Notes the first three words that come to mind when looking at this painting. Then, ask students to do the same for the first three words they associate with the color red. Divide the students into groups of three or four and ask them to combine and arrange their words to create a poetic title for this painting.


Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960
Background Information
“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
—Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko saw his art in boldly spiritual terms. The saturated colors of this grand canvas envelop and almost overwhelm, striving to transport the viewer to a transcendent place. Born Marcus Rothkowitz, the artist was raised an observant Jew and retained a commitment to spirituality throughout his life. In his posthumously published journal, Rothko declared that “only religion, as the instigator of the arts, can produce a truly ultimate art.” Rothko arrived at his signature style after a long artistic journey, producing figurative and semi-abstract work inspired by Judaism, ancient Egypt, Greek mythology, and Christianity. Eventually he purged his paintings of all recognizable references, embracing, instead, pure color as a portal to a higher emotional and spiritual plane. The color red especially intrigued Rothko as a conveyor of emotion.

Late in his career, Rothko created fourteen paintings for a nondenominational chapel in Houston, Texas. Designed to be a space of reflection and meditation for modern times, the Rothko Chapel gave the artist an opportunity to place his work in a completely immersive, awe-inspiring context. Painted mostly in dark, muted tones, the paintings are sometimes described as a reflection of the tragedy or darker side of the human condition. According to the chapel’s website, the site invites visitors to “immerse themselves in the transformative power of art.”
Philip Guston

Philip Guston
Red Sea; The Swell; Blue Light, 1975. Oil on canvas. 73 x 237 1/2 in. Collection SFMOMA, purchase through the Helen Crocker Russell and William H. and Ethel W. Crocker Family Funds, the Mrs. Ferdinand C. Smith Fund, and the Paul L. Wattis Special Fund. © Estate of Philip Guston; photo: Ian Reeves

Discussion Questions

Suggested Activities

Multimedia

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Discussion Questions

  • What stands out to you about this painting?
  • Why do you think the artist may have selected the triptych form?
  • What’s going on in each panel of this triptych? What narrative might the whole work convey?
  • The artist states that he wanted to “paint of things long forgotten.” What do you think he means by this? Why might he want to do this?
  • If you were going to paint something “long forgotten,” what would it be? Why?



Classroom Activities

    Writing: Image to Text
  • Philip Guston calls his painting Red Sea; The Swell; Blue Light, but there are many ways to interpret these three images. Ask students to look carefully at each panel of this painting. Focusing on one panel at a time, have them write down the first word that comes to mind, ultimately coming up with one word for each panel of the painting. Ask them to expand each initial word into a sentence, creating three sentences to represent the narrative of the painting.
  • Religious Studies: Comparing Artwork to Biblical Text
    As a class, read the biblical account of the crossing of the Red Sea, as described in Exodus Chapter 14, verses 21–31 in particular. Compare this biblical story, which Guston references in his title, to the painting. What similarities do they see? How has he chosen to depict the story visually? On which moments did he focus? Ask students to consider if they think he is successful in capturing this story. Why or why not?
  • Religious Studies: Midrash and Interpretation Discussion
    Share the following information with your students. Guston says he is interested in painting things “long forgotten.” Why might he have selected this particular narrative, which is retold each year during the Jewish Passover seder, or ritual meal? Ask your students if they think it is “long forgotten.” What might be its present-day resonance? Discuss as a class, then read the following midrash, from Talmud Tractate Megillah 10b.

    As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!”

    After reading this midrash, how might students’ ideas about Guston’s work change? What else could he be trying to convey through this work? What reasons might they think this “long forgotten” story should continue to be told?


Philip Guston, Red Sea; The Swell; Blue Light
Background Information
Philip Guston—a Canadian Jew who changed his name from Goldstein—was a prominent member of the New York abstract expressionist circle of the 1950s, which sought to convey emotion through nonrepresentational art. Other members of this circle included Guston’s friends Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. The social and political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s prompted Guston to abandon abstraction in favor of a cartoonish figurative style of painting, which he thought better expressed his view that art should evoke social change.

This triptych (three-part painting) alludes to the biblical story of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt through the parting of the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the pursuing Egyptian soldiers. The voluminous Red Sea (also known as the Sea of Reeds) spreads across all three panels, suggesting a progression from despair to hope for the fleeing Jews. In 1974 Guston said, “I want to paint of things long forgotten.”
Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres
“Untitled” (America #1), 1992. Lightbulbs, porcelain light sockets, and extension cord. Dimensions variable. Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, fractional and promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.

Discussion Questions

Suggested Activities

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Discussion Questions

  • What stands out to you about this piece?
  • How do the materials the artist selected impact your understanding of the piece?
  • What associations do you have with lightbulbs? What might they represent in this artwork?
  • This artwork has been interpreted as a memorial to the artist’s partner. Compare this work to other memorials you’ve seen. How is it similar or different? ferent? Both artists depict mountains. Why do you think this subject matter might have been compelling for them? Why might mountains be seen as a spiritual or religious symbol?



Classroom Activities

  • Art and Memory: Researching and Comparing Memorials
    Ask your students to research and compare memorials, or artworks that explore the idea of memory. Suggestions include Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, the artwork of Christian Boltanski, and the Jewish tradition of yahrzeit candles. Ask the following questions: How does Gonzalez-Torres’s piece compare to these memorials? Do you interpret it as a memorial? If not, how else might you interpret it?
  • Art Making: Creating a Memorial
    The use of everyday materials is a signature of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work. Ask students to consider creating their own memorial. What would it memorialize? What materials would they use? What would the materials symbolize? Then, have students build their memorials and share with the class.


Felix Gonzales-Torres, “Untitled” (America #1)
Background Information
This work is one of a series of light string pieces the artist created after his partner died of AIDS. Although the artist was very specific about not assigning any one particular meaning to his works, the mundane materials used in this piece may be understood as a reflection on the inevitability of death: a lightbulb has a limited life span just as we do, and light is an especially potent symbol of vitality. But according to the artist’s instructions, the owner has the choice of exhibiting the light string with the bulbs on or off, and if the bulbs burn out, they may be replaced, introducing hope and suggesting the natural cycle of loss and renewal. In addition to commenting on the ritual of tending to the memory of a loved one, Gonzalez-Torres described this work as evocative of the transition from one world to the next. He elaborated: “It is related to the act of leaving one place for another, one which proves perhaps better than the first.”