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A book is not read or considered solely within the confines of its own covers, in isolation from other books or from life in general. This is perhaps a commonplace, but it bears repeating nevertheless. In my case I read “Rothko” right after Thomas Merton’s autobiographical account of his becoming a Trappist monk, and not long after Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” and Carol Collier’s “Recovering the Body.” I have, in other words, been on a bimonth-long literary odyssey of death, life, body, soul, suffering, holiness, meaning and experience. So it does not feel purely serendipitous that it is just now that I finally take this closer look at Rothko’s work. On the contrary, it strikes me as fated that I would stumble over this Taschen book just now – in the bitter depths of a Canadian winter and after the other books mentioned. The timing has in a sense primed me to read this book as a sort of prayer or meditation. In spite of its relative brevity (it sits at just over 90 pages, many of which consist of full-page reproductions of the artist’s paintings), it took me longer to finish than many a book of three or four times its length. I lingered over the illustrations, and found on not a few occasions that I was actually losing (finding?) myself in meditation before them; I mused over the artist’s wonderfully enigmatic and contrary statements about his own work, and over the incisive evaluations and descriptions of his colleagues and critics. Everything about Rothko’s work makes it such that it must be approached slowly, at the right time and in the right frame of mind. It isn’t fast-food art that can be gulped down on the way to something else. It has a presence that demands your full presence, too.As many may know, I cannot generally be taken for an enthusiast of 20th-century –isms in art. I see the emperor’s new clothes in far too much of it. Not so with Rothko’s paintings. They are a contemplative’s best friend and have a surprising amount in common with the work of another favourite painter of mine, namely Il Beato Angelico. As it turns out, Rothko himself fell head over heals with Fra Angelico’s frescos on his first visit to San Marco in Florence, so one wonders whether this affinity becomes conscious and augmented following the visit to San Marco. At any rate, I confess to feeling rather proud of myself for sensing the semblance between the paintings of these two visual prophets, as uncanny as it is inexplicable, before knowing that Rothko had felt drawn to Fra Angelicos work. The reading of this book has prompted two wish-list items, the first being to visit the Rothko Chapel and other places where his late canvases hang. Sadly, not a single Rothko is to be found at our own National Gallery here in Ottawa, so an in-person encounter will require heading further afield. Obviously I have seen Rothkos before – in New York, in London – but this is where the importance of “the right time” comes in. You cannot force the appreciation or enjoyment of a work of art. Readying oneself for a work can take almost a lifetime… The second wish-list item is a reproduction or two for a little piece of bruised heaven at home.If I must present a small quibble it would be that the illustrations are not all presented strictly chronologically. Given Rothko’s distinct phases and the chronological nature of the text it is in some instances jarring to see, for example, one of the late, dark pictures near the beginning of the book next to a pastel sketch from an earlier period. But that is a very minor complaint. Overall, this is a lovely little book, one that will no doubt find itself taken from the shelf to be perused on many an evening to come.

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