In Praise of Not Fully Seeing
Maybe it has something to do with the complete lack of an object, no specific image that I can recognize, no hard-edged shape that I am responding to. When I stand in front of Rothko’s painting Untitled No. 11, I am struck by how the painting seems to offer itself primarily as a dark void, a clean slate, a nihilo ex nihilo mounted to the wall of the gallery.
But that’s not quite right. It’s not nothing I am staring at. It’s not an absence that I am encountering. When I stand ten feet away from the painting, become still enough, find a posture of slow viewing, it’s then that my eyes begin to move not only around the edges and surface of the painting, but also adjusting in a way that draws out the depths of the painting. Or, more accurately for how it seems in the moment, the painting draws me into its depths. I am the one somehow moving toward, drawn into.
This seems to be the invitation in many of Rothko’s paintings: to enter into, to move through this open window of squares and rectangles of color, the edges of which are softened by the scumbling of colors. His earlier works focused on the relationships between much brighter, bolder colors, but in response to critics focusing too much on the color alone, he turned toward darker hues. So it is with Untitled No. 11 in the contemporary wing of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. This one is darker, dimmer, as if you are in a pitch-black bedroom looking out the window at a night sky vacant of stars and moon. This effect is from the soft-edged and dim interplay of burgundy, blue-black, and red-brown.
Yet as I think about my response to this painting in terms of its colors, I am reminded once again of my own limitation: I am colorblind. When I say I am reminded, I mean that colorblindness has always seemed to me to be one of those disabilities that is not always at the forefront of the mind in the same way I imagine it would be if I were deaf or quadriplegic. Rather, although colorblindness is my ever-present condition, I am only conscious of it in the moment that I become aware of what I am not seeing, and aware that I am not seeing it. There may be times that I think I see the color and have no reason to think otherwise. Other times I might not see the color but am only aware of it because someone is pointing it out to me, which requires that I first comment on what I believe the color to be (“Look at that pink in the sunset”), or that in my uncertainty I proactively ask the question (“Is that pink I am seeing in the sunset?”) or because someone already aware of my colorblindness notices something and wonders if I can see it (“Can you see the sunset’s pink?”). But otherwise I am able to pass most of my days unconscious of not seeing the full spectrum of color.
Whatever I do believe I am seeing of the colors, I do know (as I have known since I was first diagnosed as colorblind at the age of four, after my preschool teacher noticed that I was lifting each crayon upward out of the Crayola box to read the name of the color before I selected it) that I am not seeing the full range of color that exists. Whereas Rothko’s earlier paintings of bright blues and yellows might be easier for me to see and appreciate, I can’t help it that I am drawn to the one painting of his in my hometown museum, one that is so dark and indiscernible and impossible for me to fully see its color. I am not sure why I am drawn to a painting that makes me more consciously aware of my lack of full sight.
It’s not that I see no color. This is a common misconception of colorblindness. (I almost wrote misperception, but the difference here is that misconception means forming a wrong opinion about something, whereas misperception simply means seeing something wrongly. Anyway.) I see more than black, white, and gray. But the colors that I do see are muted. It is not the full range and boldness and subtlety of color as most people see it. Some colors are harder to differentiate: A yellow might be lime green. This blue might turn out to be purple. Dark red might be brown or black.
(Every year at Easter I’ve been known to mutter, “Pastels are a bitch.”)
Standing here, in front of this painting, is an exercise in trying to see more than I know I am able to see. It is an experiment in adjusting my eyesight to see more of the painting’s depth and richness while also knowing my own limitations, and perhaps it is more right to say that I am slowly exploring my own limitations, hoping to find some small cracks and slivers in what I’ve come to believe about my limitations, searching for what I just might be able to perceive beyond them, experiencing a moment, suspended somewhere between doubt and faith over what it is that I am encountering.
I think part of what draws me into this gallery every so often to stare at this Rothko painting is perhaps that it engages my sense of wonder over what I am seeing. (I both want and don’t want to call it spiritual wonder, because I would first want to negotiate an approach to spirituality fully rooted in the senses, but that’s not what this is about exactly.) This painting engages my senses in a unique way, a way that is distinct from what I recall of the dream I had of the ocean, and also distinct from my memory of my elementary school art class.
My art teacher, Mrs. Turner, had no idea how sensitive I was about my colorblindness back then, so I can’t blame her for not having a better reaction. But when I volunteered to make a large glowing sun out of construction paper for my classroom’s mural of the tundra, I had no reason to doubt that the piece of construction paper I chose from the box was anything other than a yellow as bold and bright as the sun itself. I sat alone and worked diligently, first cutting a circle and then nicking the edges of solar flare. I was proud of my sun. I carried it to Mrs. Turner’s desk. “It’s a wonderful sun,” she said. Then she lowered her voice, bit her lip, and a strange discomfort took over her eyes. “But it’s lime green.”
I shrunk back. She said nothing further. I returned to my desk. Maybe she could have helped me start over. Maybe she could’ve said something more kind. Had she known how much her awkward response and the silence that followed created a void that I began to fill with self-doubt—had she, impossibly, known my own interiority—perhaps she could have helped me. But she did not know. In my silent withdrawal, she couldn’t have known. I cannot blame her unknowing. So instead I learned to carry my own self-doubt. There are things I cannot see.
But this experience of coming to terms with my limitation over what I though I was seeing is very different from an experience in which—I continue to believe—I momentarily saw the full range of colors, the same way everyone with full sight can see them. It was in a dream.
One night, when I was a teenager, I dreamt that I was swimming in an ocean just off the edge of a tropical island. The trees and vegetation of the island were greener that anything I had ever seen in my waking life. The deep blue-green of the ocean I swam in was distinctly different from the deep blue-black splashed with the silver of the Milky Way that I saw in the sky above me. I saw this. I knew this. I was aware of it right then, even while dreaming, as if something was whispering to me, “This is it. This is the fullness that you can’t see daily.” And in the memory of that dream that I still carry with me, it’s almost as if I am still seeing the color in my mind’s eye. I want to redact that almost. I still see the color. That’s the point. I saw what I saw in my dream, and I can still imagine it in a way that is more vivid than my eyesight is capable of seeing. I have faith in my own senses, and the colors that I saw as I floated in the ocean of my dream are the most vivid colors I have ever seen in my life. My dreams are my life too, are they not?
When I tell you that I could see it, I offer no hesitation. I resist my own self-doubt here. And yet, what colors I still miss daily. I can’t exactly conjure up a repeat of my ocean dream. There is no cure for an actual visual impairment such as colorblindness. (Encroma glasses are a cheap fix, not a cure.)
But I’m not even sure that a cure or workaround for my inability to see all colors is what I am after anyway. I’m also not sure that it actually frustrates my appreciation for, or experience of, Untitled No. 11. My colorblindness does not keep me from adjusting my eyes in a way that perceives the depths of what Rothko placed in his paintings. In fact, for me, it is my lack of full sight that propels me to look at the painting in a different way, inviting me to consider the painting not in spite of the colors I can’t see, but in a way that the colors themselves—the burgundy, the red-brown, the blue-black—ask me to adjust my eyes, blur my vision, scumble my sight to see what might be there. To take on a posture tethered between faith and doubt, not needing to believe anything one way or the other. To simply allow myself to be moved toward. To be drawn into. To be drawn.
What I’m currently reading: E.B. White’s Essays, Carl Klaus’ The Made-Up Self, Marcus Myer’s Cloud Sanctum, and a lot of Chiefs sports-ball articles
What’ I’m currently listening to: Zach Bryan and Maggie Rogers’ “Dawns,” the new JOSEPH single, Andrew Bird’s Echolocations: River
Thanks for reading. Hope you’re well. Looking forward to hearing from you.
I’ve come back to this beautiful observation three times now, over several days. The depth and elegance of your writing here leave me in amazement. And full of gratitude.