See Red In A New Light: Imperial China Meets Mark Rothko In D.C. Exhibition | KUOW News and Information

See Red In A New Light: Imperial China Meets Mark Rothko In D.C. Exhibition

Dec 21, 2016
Originally published on December 22, 2016 9:53 am

This holiday season, the color red is the focus of a small exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian show finds links between a 15th-century Ming dynasty dish and a 20th-century painting by Mark Rothko.

The dish was made for an emperor in 1430, and it's rare — there are only about 35 of them left. It has simple lines and a rich color (red, of course). Curator Jan Stuart fell in love with the dish and set about adding it to her gallery's collection. She showed it to experts, the gallery's board and members of the National Commission of Fine Arts. According to Stuart, several had the same reaction: "Oh, I get it. It's like Rothko."

The gallery bought the dish, and a concept was born: Put it on view with a luminous Mark Rothko painting — one that layers tones of red into two vertical rectangles — borrowed from the National Gallery of Art. The result is a mini-show brought together by color.

The Ming dish is the color of crushed raspberries. To get that hue, imperial potters mixed a tiny amount of finely ground copper oxide into their glaze. Back then, getting the right red was tricky: too much copper and you get a liver color; too little and it totally disappears in the firing. "It is the single hardest color to control in the kiln," Stuart says.

The colors also change as the piece cools, depending on where it sat in the kiln. The Sackler Gallery dish has two tones of red: dark, dark orange on the bottom and crimson on the sides. The result had to be perfect — nothing but perfection for the emperor. (Stuart says hundreds of imperfect dishes were destroyed.)

The ruler used the dish in his prayers. "He would have filled it with probably fruit and put it on an altar during ceremonies to the sun," Stuart says. Eventually, imperial potters stopped making the red dishes. Then, in the 18th century, the court tried to revive them — with no luck. According to one apocryphal story, one potter sacrificed himself in an effort to achieve the perfect dish: He threw himself into the kiln in hopes that the secret of the right red would be revealed for him to pass on to living potters.

Suicide is also a tragic connection between the Ming and Rothko reds. Known for contemplative color shapes that vibrate, the American painter ended his own life in 1970. But years before, Mark Rothko made 34 murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. The red painting on display at the Sackler Gallery is one of those commissions. Stuart describes it as magnetic. "You're being pulled in. One red seems warmer and happier; one red seems very somber. So it's trying, I think, through the movement of the colors and the shapes, to make you feel a range of emotion."

Rothko eventually withdrew from the project. He felt a busy restaurant wasn't the place for artistic contemplation; his theory about the power of colors couldn't flourish there — but they do flourish at the Sackler, next to the Ming dish.

"There is a kind of beauty of red," Stuart says. "You almost weep with beauty of red. I feel it equally in both: color, texture, mood, emotion."

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OK. Here in Washington, D.C., a single color, red, is the focus of a small exhibition at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the show finds links between a 15th-century Ming dynasty dish and a 20th-century Mark Rothko painting.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: A curator fell in love with the dish - simple lines, rich color - red - made for an emperor in 1430. Rare, maybe just 35 of them left; gorgeous - she wanted it for her gallery's collection. Jan Stuart showed the dish - it's really more like a shallow bowl - to experts, board members, national art commissioners. Reaction?

JAN STUART: Oh, I get it. It's like Rothko.

STAMBERG: The bowl was bought. A concept was born. Put it on view with a Mark Rothko painting from the National Gallery. His luminous work layers different tones of red into two vertical rectangles. The result? A mini show brought together by color. The Ming reminds Jan Stuart of fruit.

STUART: The dish has a glaze that is like crushed raspberries.

STAMBERG: Imperial potters mixed a tiny amount of finely ground copper oxide into their glaze - very tricky - to get the right red.

STUART: So difficult.

STAMBERG: Too much copper, you get liver color; too little, it totally disappears in the firing.

STUART: It is the single hardest color to control in the kiln.

STAMBERG: The colors change as the piece cools, depending on where it sat in the kiln. The single glaze gives the old dish two tones of red. The bottom is dark, dark orange. The sides are crimson. You can see it at npr.org. The result had to be perfect - nothing but perfection for the emperor.

STUART: Hundreds and hundreds of these were destroyed.

STAMBERG: Jan Stuart says this was a ritual dish. The emperor used it in prayers.

STUART: He would have filled it with probably fruit and put it on an altar during ceremonies to the sun.

STAMBERG: Eventually, the imperial potters stopped making these red dishes. In the 18th century, the court tried to revive them with no luck. An apocryphal story goes that one potter even sacrificed himself to achieve it.

STUART: He threw himself in the kiln.

STAMBERG: In hopes that the secret of the red would be revealed for him to pass on to living potters.

Suicide is also a tragic connection between the Ming and Rothko reds. Known for contemplative colors shapes that vibrate, the American painter ended his own life in 1970. But years before, Mark Rothko made more than 30 murals for the Seagram Building in Manhattan. One of those is at the Sackler. It's magnetic.

STUART: You're being pulled in. One red seems warmer and happier. One red seems very somber. So it's trying, I think, through the movement of the colors and the shapes, to make you feel a range of emotion.

STAMBERG: Eventually, Rothko withdrew from the project. He realized the building's busy restaurant was not the place for artistic contemplation. His theory about the power of colors couldn't flourish there.

STUART: Colors are to inspire ecstasy, tragedy and doom.

STAMBERG: Mark Rothko wrestled alone with his colors and canvases. In China, 72 pairs of hands helped create the copper red dish - mining the clay, cleaning it, shaping the pot, mixing the glaze. At the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery until late February, curator Jan Stuart says the dish and the painting are thrilling evidence of the power of color.

STUART: There is a kind of a beauty of red. You could almost weep with the beauty of red. I feel it equally in both - color, texture, mood emotion.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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