by Yoshiko Teraoka

I have been thinking about walls in times of crises. 

In a time of inversion – when left became right and right became left, moving forward meant moving back, and the contradictory impressions of the Covid-capitalist crisis were felt on sidewalks and screens, I found myself in a habit of returning to the same music and art, while stuck inside my domestic-turned-office walls. Comfort turned into compulsion when I began staring into the contradictions of a late painting by Mark Rothko.

Three self-contained rectangles hang like heavy masses on the wall of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Like dense fog, burgundy, rust-brown and black planes occupy my vision but my eyes wander, failing to locate the indeterminate, nebulous force behind the bruised surface hue. Unlike Rothko’s early self-luminous rectangles, this one consumes it. The energy is dull, cold even. But, hone in closely and you’ll hear a slow, seething sound as the competing hues push and pull with quiet agitation.

No.16 (Red, Brown, and Black) by Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas, 1958. Photo Credit: lluisribesmateu1969 is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.

No.16 (Red, Brown, and Black) was completed in his West 53rd Street studio, just down the street from the museum. The walls of this museum were founded by Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan and Abby Aldridge Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s son Nelson (grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller Snr.), who went on to become New York State Governor and vice president under Gerald Ford, served as the museum’s first president, and he played a central role in heralding the new art regime under the guise of ‘Abstract Expressionism’ (he called it ‘new enterprise painting’) to assert the US empire. He said that everything he had ever learned about politics, he learned at the Museum of Modern Art.

Rothko’s oeuvre first entered my vision as poor reproductions in tired lecture slides, then as obstructions while sleepwalking through art museums. Every now and then, they caught my attention when some record-breaking sales drew headlines, though the aura of the paintings remained obfuscated in the glow of capital. When I chose to step inside the murky oils of Rothko’s canvas to ponder the walls of its existence, it was also the time I was locked in the exhaustive loop of another contradicting voice. 

The night before lockdown, Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together” beamed through the radio as I was running along the familiar dark edges of Peckham Rye Park in Southeast London. An abrupt imposition of an unfamiliar voice, followed by a strict succession of ominous piano sounds stunned my body:

“I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time…”

“…I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel secure and ready…”

“…in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning”

The words are from Samuel Melville, who moved from the Tombs to Sing Sing in New York State’s prison system. In 1971 he was transferred to the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility. He was sentenced to eighteen years for setting explosives in governmental buildings and the offices of General Motors, Standard Oil and Chase Bank in protest of the Vietnam war. 

Melville was one of the chief organisers that pushed for prison reform during the Attica Prison Rebellion. 1,300 prisoners from cell block A – in an overcrowded prison where more than half of the inmates were black or brown – staged a rebellion to demand social justice and improved living conditions following years of abuse and being subjected to slave labour. Four days into the uprising, and back and forth futile negotiations between the inmates and authorities, then New York State Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller followed comfortably in his grandfather’s footsteps and ordered heavily armed and untrained state troopers to storm the facility through a thick cloud of tear gas on the rainy morning of September 13th. After the solid fog of CS was cleared, Melville’s body was found dead and bleeding in the mud, an autopsy later revealed close-range bullet fragments had torn through his lungs.

Unfolding dialectically and in rigid fragments over twenty minutes, “Coming Together” exhausts the words of the incarcerated Melville, staging the walls within which to meditate on what constitutes imprisonment and freedom. Each stroke is a thought, a note, a feeling, a movement, a struggle. Just as Melville’s voice unravels in time, waves of meaning unfold and enfold in Rothko, as thoughts congeal into the turps-soaked screen. Repetition tends toward erasure; layered actions are stained into existing memory to call into question what we thought we knew. Movement plays out similarly across their respective mediums; in Rzewski, the actors are instructed to improvise within the rigid numerical structure of his composition; in Rothko, the hand labours freely and methodically, in awareness of the rules governing the pictorial space. And in this space, we pivot with meaning and unmeaning. It is in this continuous shifting back and forth of mark-marking in thought, that we shape the outlines of the walls that we could not see.

Rothko did not live long enough to see the blood of Attica on Rockefeller’s hands seep into his canvases, but I wonder if his muddied expressions were movements of thoughts in a mind dialectically shifting with his critical success that was based in the oil wealth of the Rockefellers and the bankers and so forth. At the height of his success in 1958 – with a show in the American Pavillion at the Venice Biennale organised by MoMA and his famous Seagram murals in production, his canvases became murkier and impure as the black seeped in, until they were completely subsumed, forecasting a culture swallowed up by capital. 

Where he sought individual freedom in the rectangles, he found himself captive in the glossy dining rooms of the new corporate elite. And here was Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz to Russian-Jewish socialists, who fled one empire (Dvinsk in the Russian empire), only to end up on the ideological front of the other – his works paraded as an emblem of “freedom” in the new epoch, but the kind of freedom that masks the politics of repression. This is freedom without accountability, the freedom to consume, the freedom to evade tax.

Lockdown. An amorphous word we had heard before through film sets and television screens. A concept we vaguely associated with walls and borders and fences in forgotten places or spaces we chose not to enter. In lockdown, walls were felt in places we didn’t know had existed. “Lock-down” – from the German word “lock”, emerged in North America to refer to a piece of wood; a fastening mechanism used to secure a raft in the transportation of timber. A century later, that raft was inverted and the word reemerged in the mid-1970s to refer to prisoners’ confinement to their cells. 

Today, the confinement of people to their home has become synonymous with the experience of prison. A TV personality beaming in from her million-dollar home jokes: ‘This is like being in jail, is what it is.’ On BBC, a young woman quarantined in a five-star hotel tells us: ‘People don’t realise that the conditions are kind of not even the same as being a prisoner. I mean, prisoners get to go out and play basketball, go out for fresh air. I am not seeing this as a holiday at all.’ Against the echoing throes of Melville’s indifferent brutality and incessant noise replaying in the background, I wonder: does the violence of words that abstract lived experience exist on the same plane as the violence that ruptures bodies?

There are walls and partitions around us that remain hidden from sight. The sterile walls and meticulous presentation of artworks obscure the museum’s history and continued involvement in inhumane prison practices, but neither the artist nor the viewer exists independently of the sins stained into these walls. In staring into the black of Rothko’s painting, we might just find ourselves in it.

On the occasion of Sotheby’s auction ‘Property from the Collection of Nelson Rockefeller: Eastern Traditions & Western Visions’ last November, the billionaire-owned auction house celebrated Rockefeller’s legacy as an art collector, praising him as an ‘activist’ and ‘globalist’. After the raid at Attica prison, Rockefeller called President Richard Nixon to tell him, ‘it really was a beautiful operation.’ Tell me governor, what do you see in Rothko’s red, brown and black?

Yoshiko Teraoka is a writer currently living in Osaka. Her work has previously appeared in Hainamana, Lumpen Journal, and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand published by Auckland University Press.

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