“What do you see? How does it make you feel?”

Those two questions emerge with something like a primal force from the mouth of Mark Rothko in John Logan’s play Red. The painter is looking at his young assistant, who has just arrived to help him and is now for the first time taking in the painter’s work. Rothko wants to know what his response to the painting is. But he does not ask him what he thinks. He wants to know what he sees. And how it makes him feel.

I have thought a lot about those questions ever since seeing the play last fall in Los Angeles. Especially about why the experience of seeing seems so often to stir such strong feelings; and why feelings play such a significant role in helping us to see things, especially those things arising from what we often refer to as our ‘inner life.’ Rothko understood this. So have many visionaries and mystics. The play Red, in its insistent surfacing of the question of what it means to see and see deeply, feels like an illuminating gloss on a phenomenon that contemplative traditions have long struggled to understand and express: the moment when sight, fraught with feeling, opens up a new way of perceiving reality. When you are moved to tears by what you behold and changed by the experience, even if you cannot say why. Certainly it has been so for me.

The play moved me the first time I saw it; and it moved me again when I saw it two weeks later with a group of students. I have always loved Rothko’s paintings, though not always with any real understanding of why, or why my response to them was so strong. One thing I have always appreciated about them is their stillness. I feel like I slow down whenever I am standing in front of one of Rothko’s paintings. A sense of spaciousness overtakes me. I had a memorable experience of this not long ago when I visited the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. with my wife Jennifer. We sat together for a long time in that little room, not speaking, simply taking in one, then another of the canvases on the walls in front of and around us. The space was close, still, silent. The canvases loomed large. After a while I became conscious that I was feeling a lot. What precisely I cannot easily say. Some strange mixture of sadness and tenderness. It seemed as if everything I had carried with me into that room that day had been somehow magnified, opened up. I felt vulnerable, a little more vulnerable than I wanted to feel in that moment. I stayed a little while longer.  But then I had to leave.

Rothko’s work has always provoked strong feelings, even if those feelings sometimes take time to surface in light of the apparent blankness of the canvases. There seems to be nothing much going on. But initial appearances (and responses) can be deceiving; a longer savoring is required for his paintings to begin working on us, for seeing to deepen into something stronger and more involving.

This is the conclusion that James Elkins comes to in his strange and beautiful book Pictures and Tears. It is a book about people who cry in front of paintings. Not just people who have strong responses to paintings, but people who are moved to tears by what they behold. Elkins notes that no place in his experience has evoked more strong feelings and more weeping than the Rothko chapel in Houston. Many people (even people who do not know much about Rothko’s work) testify to the experience of entering the Rothko Chapel and after a while finding themselves on the verge of tears. Or simply weeping. Not everyone of course. He reflects on the testimony of guards and docents at the Chapel who claim that most visitors stay for only a few minutes and then move on. But some stay longer and a few have reported reaching a turning point, when they “have seen everything they can, and they sense it’s time to turn away. . . If those people stay on, if they stick it out and keep looking, they begin to feel much stronger emotions. They are the ones most likely to cry.”

This is fascinating to me, in part because it is echoes my own responses to Rothko’s work, but also  because of what it suggests about our capacity to see with feeling into the depth of our own experience. Also because of what it says about the need (at least sometimes) to keep looking. To not turn away our gaze.

So: the play.  Well, again, the feeling was so strong–in the play itself and for those of us taking it in in the theatre. Both characters—the painter and his young assistant–are so full of feeling, although initially it is Rothko whose volcanic emotions dominate the proceedings. They are both struggling with elemental things–the feeling of loss, terror in the face of death, the fleeting but undeniable sense of simple joy–and how to bring these things to expression. Or whether they can ever truly be brought to expression. Also how to feel things and not flee from strong feelings.

Whatever you may think about these two characters, they show themselves willing to stand in the midst of their experience and not turn away. They are prepared to risk everything for what matters most to them. And in the case of the Rothko of the play, this seems to mean (among other things) grappling with the turbulent, unstable, unpredictable but always-alluring power of red itself, opening himself to it, even if it also means risking a terrifying encounter with black (and all that he associates with that darkness).

This is life, lived as if it means something, as if it matters. Rothko speaks of Jackson Pollock at one point in the play—admiringly—as someone for whom “art mattered.” Pollack, says Rothko, believed that “art mattered.” That it meant something. That when we create art or experience it we are not just fooling around or wasting time, but are engaged in something essential to our souls. Seeing, in this way of understanding, is utterly involving; and perhaps more than a little frightening. Who really wants to look this closely, this deeply? Won’t we be swallowed up if we do? Wouldn’t it be better to keep a little distance?

Perhaps. Watching the play, or standing in front of those Rothko canvases, I can feel myself nodding a little inside in response to this question. Yes, it might be better to keep a little distance. Still, the the prospect of always looking at things half-heartedly or with a divided attention is not really that appealing. The truth is that I do not want to keep my distance. I want to get lost inside of things. I want to feel jolted, shaken awake, returned to myself. This is exactly what seeing the play did for me. And I think for my dear students too, some of them anyway. The bus ride home that evening was subdued. There was not much talking. But for much of the rest of the semester we kept returning to the play and to Rothko’s questions, considering again and again, in relation to an astonishing range of experiences: what do you see? How does it make you feel?

Those questions became our companions during the weeks we spent together, helping us to open ourselves to all that was unfolding before us, to enter in, allow ourselves to be stirred and challenged by what we beheld. Not only the beautiful and luminous, but also the painful and bewildering–those places of experience where no amount of logic or reasoning could create coherence or meaning. Still, we learned to pause and look and not turn away. We helped one another in this work. How wonderful it was to move through that space together, to feel ourselves held by those questions, that immensity. The power of that beholding remains with me still.