Imagine a moment where past associations subside, thoughts about what is true or false cease, and concern for what happens next disappears. I am reminded of when I encountered Mark Rothko’s large orange, deceptively simple-looking canvas at the Art Institute of Chicago. As I stared, engulfed by the image, time slowed, the chatter of my mind quieted, and the enveloping warmth of the colors hummed in unison with my own energies. For however long it lasted, I lost myself, and the boundary between the outer world and me dissolved. As I think about the experience, I recall the words of an unknown author: “There is nothing more extraordinary than the ordinary when it has your full attention.”
I often remind myself that this moment, not yesterday or tomorrow, is a gift to relish while it is available. The Zen masters, the Gestalt therapists, and some successful athletes will insist that past and future do not even really exist, but are illusions, manifestations of the mind, a funny habit we indulge in while the all-pervasive present continues to pulse all around and within. It is arguable that all we have is with us currently.
Generally, engaging in something meditative, like painting, ushers the present to the fore. While the painting ritual accommodates thoughts from both past and future, the mere act of moving the brush guides the self gently and repeatedly back to the present, like a swing that naturally gravitates toward center. All the while, an image unfolds, a testament to this active yet thoughtful process. Through time and persistence, the various parts of the image converge, leaving behind a finished product, a record of the moment-to-moment struggle, a trophy for the creator and others to behold.
When it came to his painting, Rothko stated, “We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” But in order to arrive at timelessness, Rothko had to embrace the now. It is as though eternal truth is right beneath our nose if we can only stop to be with it. While Rothko was well acquainted with the history of art and civilization, we can follow the span of his career to uncover a progression toward austerity, a distillation of his own previous ideas. By embracing the moment, his vision drew to a tighter and tighter focus until he arrived at a form of abstraction that engaged the viewer through a new and universal form of visual language. Some enthusiasts would go further, and say that he left us with a new religiosity.
At their most useful, ideas of past and future better inform our ability to make our way through life. Without any idea of history or sense of cause and effect, how would we navigate through even the simplest of situations? We would cease to be human, but would return to a more primitive state, acting and reacting without reflection or foresight.
But how much time do we actually spend waiting for something to happen, wishing for something we haven’t got, hoping to feel something other than what we actually feel? Meanwhile, time goes by, and we are that much older. Look away from your computer. What’s happening right now?
Top image: Mark Rothko, Untitled (Painting), 1953/54
David Criner is an American artist working in Chicago. In his recent work, he transforms twentieth century news and advertising material in pursuit of an image which celebrates the present moment. He received a BFA in Painting from the University of Illinois in 1991, an MFA in Painting from the University of Kansas in 1995, and has exhibited his work throughout the United States and Europe. David teaches at Northeastern Illinois University.