Guest Blogger: Jennifer Parnell

What is Art?

Robin and Rothko

A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally! ” — Mark Rothko

I don’t “think” about Art all that often. In fact, days will go by without me thinking of Art at all. I am much more likely to think about what I am going to do with my pets in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse. I am more likely to ponder the beauty of an ice cold beer than to reflect on the merits of Dadaism. I, in other words, am like most people, except for the fact that I trained as an Art Historian. Yes, I am actually knowledgeable which surprises even me. It’s like my dirty little secret. I love Art. Life just got in the way. So when I do get the opportunity to think about, see, or discuss Art, it is a real treat. Those opportunities are few and far between, but I do get them occasionally, like when I spend the day with my friend Robin.

Robin is a “work” friend which is really the only new kind of friends I make now a days, considering that I am an introverted hermit (not that it’s a bad thing). Robin is a writer but like most artists she works a day job. She is in her 40s, independent, hysterical, well read, and probably a little crazy. Robin loves to go to museums. She is a member at all the San Francisco museums and whenever there is a new show she thinks to call me. It is great because she gets me in for free, and she likes to drink and gossip. Always a pretty good time except when we see anything that is considered Abstract.

Robin is not a fan of non- representational Art. She is one of those people that look at a Jackson Pollock and go “I could do that!” No Robin, you couldn’t. Trust me. I put up with it because I get it: Abstract Art is not for everyone. It wasn’t my field. I studied the Pre-Raphaelites and Bay Area Muralists in the 1930s. But I love all art (except Dale Chihuly) and I try to defend Abstraction when I am with Robin. Most of the time it ends in a drunken shouting match where I call her a philistine and she calls me an Ivory Tower elitist. I tell her I can see the Ivory tower from the ghetto (Literally I can. I live across the street from Stanford.) We then usually go have a drink and talk about Harper Beckham.

Our greatest arguments are always about one of my favorite artists, Mark Rothko.

Sexy Beast Mark Rothko

Here is a quick Art History recap- Mark Rothko was an abstract artist of the post-war generation. He is most well-known for his large scale “color block” paintings (also known as multi-form paintings.) He was born in Latvia in 1903, came to America as a child, went to and dropped out of Yale, and became one of the most famous of the Abstract Expressionists. He wrote about Art frequently, and was a great thinker as well as a great painter. He committed suicide in 1970 by overdosing on anti-depressants. He also slit his wrists for good measure. In other words, he was a serious dude. Here is some of his Art:

These pictures don’t do his work justice, but you get the idea. I loved Rothko from the moment I was exposed to him. His abstraction was accessible, emotional. Warm and relatable. The first time I went to New York I saw a Rothko exhibition at the Whitney. The girl I was with had to leave, it was so overwhelming to her. Being in that room, surrounded by these massive paintings of pure color—it was as close to a spiritual experience as I will ever get. When I tried to explain this to Robin she said “it’s just color!” I then accused her of being dead inside and we didn’t talk for a week. After we made up and went to a museum again, we had the same argument! I tried to explain to her why Rothko matters; she tried to tell me a child could paint this. I bought her a book called “Modern Art for Dummies” and she bought me a Chihuly catalogue. This has gone on for years. It is our great Art fight and I love it. I feel like I am fighting the good fight, which I don’t often get to do. Robin asks “Why is this Art?” I explain theory and form and composition. I explain the history and what lead Rothko to this style. I explain the emotional impact it has on me. I try to explain being in a large room, filled with color and silence. “Use your imagination Robin! You are a goddamn writer!” She looks at me like I am crazy. And damn, maybe I am. But Rothko’s work IS what Art is all about- changing the way you see things, giving you an emotional experience, educating you… Maybe you have to be in room full of Rothko’s to understand. I can only hope a Rothko exhibition comes our way. I think it would be a very disturbing/enlightening experience for Robin. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the only thing Robin and I will ever agree on when it comes to Modern Art is that Dale Chihuly is a total asshole.

When she isn't arguing about Rothko, Jen generally writes hilarious monologues about her other love.


  1. I agree, but I'm also a fan of Rothko and modern art in general. And I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets into shouting matches over art.

  2. Do you like any one-eyed artists?

  3. There is an excellent play by John Logan about Rothko titled Red, well worth seeing.

  4. @b0b: There's an eight-eyed artist that spun out a real work of art in the garden yesterday. It was gone overnight though *sigh*...but she'll make another one today, I'll bet!