Elm City Scrapbook is a column alternately written by Daniella Sanchez (MC ’25) and Catherine Kausikan (GH ’25), which each week reflects on a different artwork in and around New Haven.
When my dad and I go to museums we play the “Guessing Game.” It goes like this: point out a piece of art to your partner from far away, so that they cannot see the label, and see if they can guess the artist based on style and motifs.
The game is a lesson in art history. We’ve played it in many museums in many different places since I learned to speak. He gets the answer right almost every time, and I always trail behind, confusing Picasso for Braque. I’ve begun to surpass him, slowly, as my knowledge of art history grows, but I won’t forget my first teacher who taught me that art is more than just a game.
I remember back in 2018, when I was a freshman in high school, we took a father-daughter trip to San Francisco with the sole purpose of looking at art. We visited the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). In one of the main galleries there was a large rectangular room with abstract paintings unlike any I had ever seen on the wall. They were made of these intense blocks of color, one on top of the other, that overwhelmed my sight. I felt these colors deeply in my chest, as if the colors were springing out of there. My feelings were as abstract as the painting itself. I did not know what they were then, so I thought it would be smart of me to ask a trick question.
“¿Papi, sabes quien es?” Dad, do you know who it is?
“Por supuesto.” Of course. But he did not give me a name. Instead he just looked up at the painting of a storming orange cloud, overshadowing a rectangular block of blue, resting at the bottom of the canvas like the deepest parts of the sea. When I looked at my father’s face, I could see the tears swelling up in his eyes. I don’t know why he was crying, but I know that I could feel it too. Something in the colors that had a chokehold on us. They convey the same emotions that might be captured by a play or a novel. A whole Greek tragedy, in two blocks within a picture frame.
Later, he told me it was Mark Rothko, a Russian-born American abstract painter known for his color-fields. Since then he has become one of my favorite painters, and when I see a work of his I always stop in front of it to let the colors pull me into what he wants me to feel.
A year ago, I was a freshman here at Yale, wandering alone through the galleries of the YUAG. When I hit the Modern and Contemporary Art gallery, I recognized the warmth settling in my chest at the sight of a Rothko. The feeling was warm, because the colors were too. The bright orange sunset with purple and pink hues was a reminder of warm Miami beaches back home, but also a reminder of the way the sky gets in the evenings sometimes after it rains in New Haven. I wished my dad, back home, could marvel at it with me.
Instead, I played the guessing game myself, pretending my dad was with me as I continued to walk through the galleries.
Who made that painting, Dani? Rothko.
Untitled by Mark Rothko is on view in the Modern and Contemporary Gallery at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1954, Oil on unprimed canvas