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This most ancient of colors, the primal primary, red was the first color humans used, modified, smeared on their bodies, and painted on cave walls. Before ancient languages had words for blue, yellow, green, orange, they had a word for red,1 the color of blood, viscera, our mortal bodies, the life that is in us. The Hebrew אדם (adam) means “son of red earth,” and our word “red” and its cousins (rouge, russet, rust, ruby, ruddy) derive from the Sanskrit word rudhira, meaning “blood.”2

If red could speak, it would say with Wallace Stevens, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Greens, yellows, and browns color our earth; blues and grays, the sky. By contrast, nature offers only smatterings of red. We take note of it because we must. The reds of early morning and sunset skies, springtime blossoms, autumn leaves, though lovely, are short-lived. Those reds last just long enough to mark a passage from day to night, night to day, season to season. If red could speak, it would say with Wallace Stevens, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Red is a portentous color sated with life’s deeply felt contradictions—flesh and spirit, slaughter and sacrifice, the profane and sacred, the fires of hell and blood of Christ. In the thirteenth century, Pope Boniface VIII commanded his cardinals to wear red cassocks as a symbol of their willingness to die for the Church. No saint himself, Boniface was consigned to the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno for simony and other abuses of papal powers. In the sixteenth century the popes began wearing red shoes as a sign of their worldly authority and submission to Christ.

Being a bodily color, red rouses raw bodily emotion—passion, lust, anger, and rage. “Seeing red,” our euphemism for unchecked anger, is a phrase physiologically apt (as is the name of the energy drink Red Bull). The mere sight of red boosts heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism.3 It can impel the many to act as one. No wonder MAGA hats are red, and most national flags have red splashes.

Pickett’s Charge

(in honor of Mark Bradford’s 400-foot installation at
the Hirshhorn Museum, seven blocks from the U.S. Capitol)

They are still coming on Union lines,
still coming up the hill in colors and layers
too numerous to number, striations
of orange and reds on a blue hill
and the smoke taking the breath.
Frenzied by the enormity of the ask,
by old grievances rubbed raw, they come,
their fiery rage fraying the fabric,
shredding the layers, spraying
blood in the air, on the flags,
blood in the mud, in the layers.
We will never know our layers.

It all came back to the crippled vets
as they toured the grand cycloramas
of the Gilded Age. Some would point
pridefully to the ditch or hillock
where they were hit and fell while others
hung back, immersed in the vast expanse,
surprised to find they craved it still,
the frenzied surge to take the hill,
the yells, the blood, the beastly urge.

Red screams for attention, warns of danger ahead. Our eyes are instinctively drawn to it—fire engines, stop signs, brake lights, a red dress. “Forget everything that borders on yellow or blue,” Goethe writes. “We are to imagine an absolutely pure red, like fine carmine suffered to dry on white porcelain.” He goes on to describe red as so visually potent it seems to include all colors, despite conflicting evidence from Newton’s prisms.4

When the coronavirus epidemic emerged in Wuhan, medical experts at the Centers for Disease Control began drafting a public health and marketing plan. They wanted an image of the virus startling enough to alter public behavior. The grayscale images from electron microscopes would not suffice. Since color cues were lacking, the six illustrators in the graphics department had artistic license to assign color to the virus. They fashioned a gray ball with deep red protein spikes and a subliminal message, “Stop what you’re doing. Pay attention to this.” The image caught on. The virus spread worldwide along with the image. Those red spikes probably saved lives.

By departing from realism and bringing bold colors forward, the Fauvists made color itself the primary subject of modern painting.

There’s art in science, science in art. In the early 1900s Matisse and his fellow Fauvists painted in bold blues, greens, and reds, pigments discovered by nineteenth-century chemists experimenting with cobalt, chromium, and cadmium. Matisse’s Red Studio was the first major painting done in cadmium red. It proved to be a less toxic pigment than the mercury-based vermilion (cinnabar), which had long been the standard red.

Cadmium red was also bolder and brighter than the deep rich vermilion, which was better suited for the regal robes of the Renaissance than for a modernist studio. By departing from realism and bringing bold colors forward, the Fauvists made color itself the primary subject of modern painting.Wallace Stevens would have seen Fauvist paintings at the 1913 Armory show, at the MoMA, and on the walls of friend and modernist art collector Walter Arensburg. Stevens’s color imagery is just as bold and unconventional as the Fauvists’.5 He gives us “red-colored noise,” “red-slitted blue,” “central, essential red,” “red weather,” “savage blue,” and “green barbarism turning paradigm.” He thought color a flow of meaning and feeling, a nonverbal language that “exceeds all metaphor.” In “Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight” he writes:

It exceeds the heavy changes of light.
It is like a flow of meanings without speech
And of as many meanings as of men.

Mark Rothko spent hours in the MoMA studying Matisse’s Red Studio while transitioning from representational to color-field painting in the late 1940s. He told an interviewer, “When you look at that painting, you become that color, you become totally saturated with it as if it were music.”6

The same might be said of the thirty giant canvases and gouache studies Rothko painted as part of his ill-fated Seagram commission,7 the paintings that established red as his signature color. John Banville said that Rothko’s reds “seep up through the canvas like new blood through a bandage in which old blood has already dried.”8 Those deep burgundies and bright crimsons rouse both wonder and dread, emotions that Edmund Burke associated with the Sublime:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.9

It is the color of ancient sacrifice—so fleshly it seems spiritual, so primal it feels deeply personal.

If there is terror in the Seagram murals, it comes from the presence of red, the interiority of red, and the exclusion of all other colors and all forms but for that feathery frame around that central deep red. Is it meant as a frame, a doorway, a portal? Rothko detested interpretations of any sort. “The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy finite associations,” he wrote.10

The Seagram murals want us to see red as if for the first time. The elemental red holds us. We cannot pull away. It is the color of ancient sacrifice—so fleshly it seems spiritual, so primal it feels deeply personal.

In prehistory red ochre marked and ornamented burial sites. It was rubbed on corpses as well. No one knows why.11 Perhaps to signify the vitality of the departed ones; perhaps to send the dead on their journey. Perhaps mankind’s first color had become mankind’s first symbol of all that is alive and perishable in the body.

Red persists as the color of mourning in South Africa and Ghana, but most everywhere else, somber colors rule. Why is that? Why don’t mourners in Western culture wear red? What color better expresses the vibrant spirit of the departed, our vivid memories of them, and the bodily effects of their loss? The Ghanaian practice makes sense to me: members of the immediate family don red garments while all other mourners wear black.

Like grief, red is powerful, raw, mysterious. We try to manage each one but they overwhelm us at times, resist our efforts to control and understand them. When they saturate us, we go weak in the knees. Language cannot reach the places where red and grief live, places deep within the body where words fail us.

“So beautiful the sunset.”

“So sorry for your loss.”

If you’ve never felt in your chest the dead weight of such a loss, you will.

The first death is the worst death, one to which we are never reconciled.

“After the first death there is no other.” That line from a Dylan Thomas poem about the German bombing of London has always stayed with me. I think it means that at some point in our lives we will likely suffer a loss that rips at the fabric of our being—a death for measuring all others by. The first death is the worst death, one to which we are never reconciled.

My first death was the death of my wife Patti, who was but fifty-two when she died from pancreatic cancer and sepsis, two insidious diseases that hide out deep within the body on a secret mission to kill their bodily host. Her cancer had spread to bone marrow, liver, and lungs before the pancreas was identified as the source organ. Caring for her during the eight weeks of her illness was the most sacred task I ever performed on this earth, yet a task at which I ultimately failed. I live with iterative “if only’s” . . . If only I had done this or that . . . If only we had the time to talk over last things.

Eight months later my mother died from leukemia; shortly thereafter my father died from congestive heart failure. All three of them done in by blood and circulatory disorders. I couldn’t help sensing a pattern in the clustering of such losses.

My therapist had a word for that way of thinking, calling it “apophenia,” finding patterns in unrelated events. She also counseled me in how to “manage” my grief. Hard to do when it felt like grief was managing me. Anti-depressants, grief groups, and nightly drinking bouts did me little good.

With time, I eased out of depression by quieting my mind and opening my eyes to the world around me. As if wakening from Adam’s dream, I would spend an afternoon in the backyard, losing myself in what Elizabeth Bishop called “a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”12 I would study the clouds scudding across the sky, the effects of water on starling feathers, of wind on tulip poplar leaves (waggling side to side in a light breeze, curling into cones in a gust).

On weekends I would lose myself another way, driving aimlessly through the Maryland and West Virginia countryside, giving myself up to the visible world. Not thinking, just looking. Often what caught my eye was the bold red of a truck or car rusting away in a meadow. Nothing stands out like red on a field of yellow or green.

Camera in hand, I approached each vehicle warily as if Phaeton’s fiery chariot had fallen from the heavens. At first, I sensed nothing beautiful in these rusty wrecks. They were like wounds on the landscape, troubling reminders of bodily decrepitude. But by coming in close and isolating subtle gradations of color, signs of wear and resistance to wear, I could find beauty there. I tried to include sprigs of grass or leaf shadows for the sake of contrast. Transience has a complicated timetable, as mountains and mayflies know.

I printed the images I liked, framed my rusty Rothkos and hung them about the house. The triptych below hangs opposite our front door as a tribute to my parents and to Patti. Each time I walk through the door and see the memorial, I try to remember I’m entering a space where the spirits of the departed live on. In a recent Louise Erdrich novel, a tribal elder says, “red is the fire, the doorway to the spirit world.”13

I spent the first year of Covid, the lockdown year, locked in memory’s vault, thinking of my losses, mindful of the significant dates to come that year—the twentieth anniversary of my wife’s death and the hundreth birthdays of my deceased parents. Idled by the present, I returned to my past, studying family photographs as never before, looking for details once overlooked—an unusual gesture or expression, a forgotten heirloom. I scanned some pictures, sharpened them in Photoshop. Finding a portal to the past, I walked through it.

It is February 1925. The lad in woolens holding a toy gun is my father at age six. His father and younger sister are seated. Both children engage the camera, the lad amusedly, his sister quizzically. Their father, a second-generation Irishman and mercantile tax appraiser for Erie County, looks past the camera to the hills beyond, the hopeful look of a man dreaming big in a big country.

Some want cosmic mysteries explained. I just want to understand my father.

In two months, everything changes for this young family. On the evening of April 10th, at the intersection of Tenth and Cranberry in Erie, Pennsylvania, a car driven by an unlicensed seventeen-year-old boy speeds through a red light and slams into William Coyle’s Ford sedan. Coyle’s body flies through the windshield and strikes a utility pole, fracturing his skull, crushing his right side. At the hospital that night, their mother lifts up the two children to kiss their comatose father goodbye.

Is this what quieted my father, turned him inward, made him permanently aggrieved? His own father’s untimely death? The financial hardships the family later endured? A wartime experience? How to know these things? Some want cosmic mysteries explained. I just want to understand my father.

Awake at Three A.M.

The night sky reminds me of my father,
who was large and gentle like an old hotel.
I spent my childhood in his rooms
fretting his silence and stares
into the middle distance. “It’s nothing
you did,” my mother would say,
her hand on my shoulder, “It’s the war.”

So much of it gone now:
the laughter in noonday sun
in the park and the children’s voices,
the gestures of the dead
only you remember,
wanting a soft impression to last
like the fern on a fossil bed,
the potsherd pulled from a dig
still showing the impress of its shaping hand.

I watched the image of my father’s weak heart
beat from side to side on the monitor
like a white bird in a wind storm, thinking
“I don’t know what I’m seeing….”
then, “I don’t know my father. . .
not the light or the dark.
I don’t know my father.”

He often said the perfect moment in sports
was the play at the plate. With the crack of the bat
he’d raise his eyes from his book to the Zenith
and together we’d watch as the outfielder
fields the ball and heaves it home, the shortstop
fakes the cutoff, the catcher guarding
the plate snares the ball and sweeps
his mitt toward the runner hooking his slide
into the plate’s far corner while the ump
leaning into the dust stretches
his arms wide and calls the runner
safe at home.

1935.As a youth, books were his refuge from a not-so-happy home. Responding to a rumor that a sixteen-year-old boy had read most everything in Edinboro’s public library, a retired professor looked up the lad and gave him a key to his private library. All his life, reading was a palliative, not a cure, for a chronic sadness.

In mid-childhood when I developed a fear of the dark, he would read me to sleep from books he had loved as a child—Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe.

His Feet

Night storms and cracked timbers,
sea stories you read me
stretched out on my bed,
two giant feet two feet past mine,
yours crossed at the ankles,
big toe our bowsprit pointing south;
me snugged to your starboard,
knowing seawater might overwash
other men in boats, ours were
smooth sailin’.

Fallen arches and flat feet
the Marines overlooked in ’42.
All your life a pain,
a foot soak after mowing the lawn,
or you limping around the back nine,
a seven iron your cane, saying
“Don’t tell your mother this.”

By your eighties, you hobbled about
but chiefly sat, book in hand,
swollen feet anchored in compression socks,
your mind well-tethered till the end.

1936.Two first-year students at Edinboro State Teachers’ College in northwestern Pennsylvania pose for the camera. My father is the tall, lanky one with his knee on the turf, his smile utterly genuine, not the rictus of embarrassment and dread I know from dozens of later photographs. In the next six years he will marry, teach high school English, earn a masters degree from Pitt, and write three novels in the romantic, expansive style of Thomas Wolfe. In September 1942, he enlists in the Marine Corps. Once home from the war, he lights the manuscripts on fire.

My younger sister once asked me to photograph my father’s hands while he slept, an opportunity I never had. They were distinctive hands, manly but delicate. I notice how the left one hangs down in the photo, just as it hung from the arm of the chair in the doctor’s office the day of his diagnosis. “Bill, you’ve had a heart attack,” the doctor said. My father did not respond. Instead, he lifted his left hand, opened it, then turned it over quickly as if to say, “So what? What can I do about it?”—a gesture I’d seen hundreds of times.

The Garden at Noon: A Haibun

A tumor no bigger than a garden pea. You might have lived with it several years or more. You wanted it gone. They took a lobe from your lung. The cutting strained the heart. It weakened. You wanted more years; you got twelve weeks, none of them good.

“I made the wrong call,” you said, a large man made small by the hospital gown.

Before the bookseller came to cart away your books, my sisters and I set aside ones we wanted to keep. I chose a dozen of your teaching copies with your underlines and marginalia. It’s where you live now—in the margins of books, in shoeboxes of photographs, and in the garden when I think of you.

Esteemed Red Dragon
Maple sleeps; liriope
And iris stand guard. 

March, 1943, a nightclub in Fredericksburg, Virginia. His Garrison cap, Pall Malls, and Rum & Cokes on the table. He is on a weekend pass from the officer training program at Quantico, and my mother, wearing flowers in her hair, has driven down from Erie. After his enlistment, she had moved back with her parents, a difficult decision, I’m sure. Bitter over his daughter’s marriage to a non-Catholic, her father had refused to attend her wedding.

Difficulties would continue to dog her. Chief among them was the emotional strain from raising three children with little support from a husband absorbed in his work and melancholy brooding. A series of health crises commenced in middle age: a radical mastectomy in her fifties, progressive dementia in her seventies, aggressive leukemia in her eighties. With grace and equanimity, she adjusted to her troubles and counseled us through ours.

My father came home from the war in November ’45, free of bodily wounds. He never talked about the combat—nothing about beach landings at Bougainville or Guam, the Okinawa caves—only the idle hours aboard ship playing poker, bridge, or cribbage, often for money. Having gambled through war and lived to tell about it, he kept at it in peacetime, pleased to be known as the English professor who played the ponies. A week before he died, he sent me from the hospital to a convenience store to box three numbers in the daily lotto.

A crop of superstitions sprouted from his gambling habit, among them an aversion to the color red. He would never wear a red shirt or red socks, and if a magazine had a red cover, he’d tear it off before reading it. Clinically known as erythrophobia, the dread of red is the most common color phobia. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Billy Bob Thornton were among its sufferers. I suspect that my favorite painter Edward Hopper (a man whose sadness rivaled my father’s) was erythrophobic. He painted in blues, greens, and yellows, but rarely in reds.

I doubt if any morbid psychology was at work in my father. He maintained ledgers in his head and probably chose to be in the green or black rather than in the red. Blue, green, and black were his lucky colors, the ones he wore to the track. Never red.

If my parents owned a marriage manual, it’s one their grandparents brought from the old country. Their sixty-two-year marriage was a Mulligan stew of mistrust and mild cruelty in a broth of abiding love. He called her Ugly Old One, she called him The Old Bastard—these, their terms of endearment. Each hid money from the other. He kept his gambling stash in books; she tucked away pin money to spend on herself and on us. She knew all his hiding places; he knew none of hers. Each used the silent treatment to signal their displeasure with the other. Their children served as emissaries between the two parties.

They were not “soul mates,” but lifelong mates fully committed to each another. When we faced problems as children or adults, they spoke to us in one voice. If Dad wanted to lend authority to his advice, he would combine his age with Mom’s to make a big number from the fifth chapter of Genesis: “Your mother and I have been on this earth for 142 years, and we think….” That always got our attention. When Mom became seriously ill, Dad became her primary caregiver, a role he was not made for, but one he performed with loving attentiveness.

Starting Over

In the antique shops of West Virginia
I return to the houses of my childhood.
In Morgantown I sit down at the kitchen table
from our Woodlawn address as my mother
serves up bologna on white, its crust trimmed
just as I liked it. Well into her eighties, ravaged
by dementia, she would ask repeatedly
what she could fix me to eat though
unsure where we kept the foodstuffs.
She’d given up her days and nights for us,
her college and career, and still wanted to do more.
“Sit down, Mom. Let me heat you up some soup.”

In PawPaw I find the headboard from my bedroom,
the living room coffee table,
the barometer from the hallway,
John Thomson’s Modern Course for the Piano
(Something New Every Lesson),
and a steamer trunk full of Geographics.

My father would not let go of his issues.
He shelved them in the cellar on Redbud Lane,
a column for each year of marriage,
a log of his travels beyond Ohio after the war.
He spent his evenings in a body-worn chair
in the den’s corner, far from the television,
his magazines, whiskey, and Pall Malls
near at hand, and there he would fall asleep
among fishermen mending their nets
or ranchers herding their cattle.
In Huntersville I find his chair.
“Sit down, Dad, you’ve had a hard life.
What can I get you? Whiskey straight up?”

In a vintage clothing store in Martinsburg
I find one of his flannel shirts. I try it on,
adjust the collar, roll up the sleeves
just as he did, look in the mirror, furrow
my brow as I review his son’s failings.

My marriage to Patti lasted just thirty-one years, half as long as my parents’ marriage. We married a week after our college graduation and settled in North Carolina so I could attend graduate school. My career plan was to follow after the father: earn a doctorate in English, then land a college teaching job. I achieved the first goal, not the second. Instead of hiring new instructors in the mid-1970s, English departments began cutting positions as humanities enrollments declined and undergraduates shifted to more “practical” disciplines.

Patti was among them. A French major in college, she began taking accounting classes while working as a secretary at the university. She left North Carolina a certified public accountant and I left unemployed. We moved to Washington, DC, where I eventually found work abstracting and indexing government documents (not exactly the dream job of a student of literature). Patti became the finance officer of a mental health clinic.

After a dozen years I was promoted from harmless drudge to product manager responsible for designing and marketing research databases for colleges and universities. Two or three times a year I attended librarian gatherings in New York, Miami, New Orleans, and other cities with large convention centers. Patti always accompanied me. Often, we stayed over a day or two afterwards on the company dime.

Returning to those cities and hotels after Patti’s death proved especially difficult.

French Quarter Courtyard

A public courtyard off Decatur Street
empty of ornament. Just three walls,
four chairs, five palms, and me. A lone
reveler from the night before stumbles in,
looks three walls round and leaves.

Leaves me alone with all that’s here—
a splash plate plinks from morning rain,
shadows stipple a salmon wall, overhead,
a grey lizard, probably a skink,
inches out of the hard green core
of a palm, crosses the midrib,
rests and lifts its head to the sun
drinking the light becoming
light. We were light once.

Once you and I were lovers here,
twice alive in this same city,
its crazy music filled us so.
These very streets danced in us
and frenzied us to bed. I would find
that room again, find your body
turned to mine again, breathe
your breath again if only
in dream, if only these words . . .

Words fall into these gutters each night,
parts of broken speech, besotted syllables
flushed down drains into sewers
into the muck of river bottom mud.
There they collect and right themselves,
emerge at dawn, fully costumed,
jewel-covered, come back whole
to the city’s streets, moving rhythmically
in pairs, sometimes in whole sentences,
slipping into porticos, latticework, and masonry,
to welcome all who waken here.

During my Covid confinement, reviewing the photographs from our years together gave me little comfort. I could enter into a scene, recall its circumstances but not draw near the one made to seem wholly alive by the legerdemain of light. Looking backward and sensing Patti there, I kept losing her again and again, her absence overtaking her seeming presence. Not since the funeral and its aftermath had I felt that heaviness in my chest as the old grief returned.

Susan Sontag said that all photographs are a memento mori, an elegy for a moment and a human subject lost to us.14 The same might be said of lyric poetry.

The only photograph to give me solace was this picture of Patti at a family dinner. She seems to be looking not just at the camera but through the lens into the present moment, telling us that all will be well, all manner of things, that our two children then in their early twenties would soon marry and marry well, that fine grandchildren would follow. Am I reading too much in? Oh yes. Have I stepped into a bog of sloppy Irish sentiment? Yes to that also. Those are my peaty footprints on your carpet.

The Garden at Midnight: A Haibun 

I sit in the grayscale of evening, the moon in my glass.

I once thought a double whiskey in the garden late at night would summon you to an upstairs window to check on me. I still believe that.

Tonight’s moon is half itself, pendant in the southern sky. A cloud passes over. Garden flowers pass from forms to shadows, then back to forms as the moon returns, the cloud on her shoulder.

This shimmery surface of shadow and shine on leaves still wet from evening rain, this vast blossoming forth of forms, and the moon, yes, the moon.

Can it be so apparent no one thinks it, the hidden made manifest right here right now in front of us all the time?

Reading you was like reading a poem, loving most the parts I least understood.

I never look up to the window. If I did so, you would be gone.

Darkly the pond waits
for the moon to pass over
but she does not rise.

Although color drained from my life after the deaths of Patti and my parents, it came back as intensely as ever after a few years. Blood-red sunsets and autumn leaves once again quicken my pulse. Such is the power of our primal primary. Yellow and blue, the other two primaries, have softer, more subtle effects—one joyous and warm; the other, distant, doleful, and cool.15 Miraculously, our eyes and brains create these colors along with their many gradients and variants.

Neuroscientist David Eagleton writes, “If you could perceive reality as it really is, you would be shocked by its colorless, odorless, tasteless silence.”16 What we perceive instead is colorful, smelly, and loud—thanks to our evolved and still evolving primate brains.

How drab the world before that brain of ours made a sensory model of its environs, distinguished wavelengths of light bouncing off objects and interpreted each wave as a color. How drab the world before those colors acquired names and associations with experiences of love, loss, suffering, and joy. How drab the world before the human mind made color and realized it colors the world.

See previously

DANIEL COYLE worked for LexisNexis and ProQuest designing and managing research databases for the academic library market. He earned a doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill and has taught at UNC and American University. Now retired, he lives in Washington, DC.


  1. Michel Pastoueau, Red: The History of a Color, trans. Judy Gladding (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 14.
  2. John Gage, Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 110).
  3. Alexander Theroux, The Primary Colors (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 160.
  4. Johann von Goethe, Theory of Colour, trans. Charles Eastlake (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1970), 313.
  5. Dorothea K. Beard, “A Modern ‘Ut Pictura Poesis’: The Legacy of Fauve Color and the Poetry of Wallace Stevens,” Wallace Stevens Journal 8, no. 1 (spring 1984): 4.
  6. James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 283.
  7. It’s an iconic story in modern art: in 1958 Rothko accepted a $35,000 commission to create a series of paintings to hang in the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan’s newly constructed Seagram building. Working from a palette of dark reds and browns, Rothko said he hoped to ruin the appetites of every rich person who ate there. A principled socialist, he grew increasingly troubled by the commission and ended up returning the money. He later donated nine of the paintings to the Tate.
  8. John Banville, “Temple of Mysteries: Mark Rothko,” 1 May 2006,
  9. Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” 27 Mar. 2005,
  10. Breslin, Mark Rothko, 245.
  11. Ernst E. Wreschner, “Red Ochre and Human Evolution,” Current Anthropology 21, no. 5 (October 1980): 631.
  12. Anne Stevenson, “Letters from Elizabeth Bishop,” Times Literary Supplement, 7 Mar. 1980, p. 261.
  13. Louise Erdrich, The Sentence (New York: Harper Collins, 2021), 204.
  14. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1977), 15.
  15. There are competing sets of primary colors depending on what is being mixed—paint, ink, or light rays. My three essays adhere to the painter’s triad of yellow, blue, red.
  16. David Eagleman, The Brain (New York: Random House, 2015), 36.

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