See Red In A New Light: Imperial China Meets Mark Rothko In D.C. Exhibition The Smithsonian show finds links between a 15th-century Ming dynasty dish and a 20th-century Rothko painting. Curator Jan Stuart says, "You almost weep with beauty of red."
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See Red In A New Light: Imperial China Meets Mark Rothko In D.C. Exhibition

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See Red In A New Light: Imperial China Meets Mark Rothko In D.C. Exhibition

See Red In A New Light: Imperial China Meets Mark Rothko In D.C. Exhibition

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. Here in Washington, D.C., a single color, red, is the focus of a small exhibition at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the show finds links between a 15th-century Ming dynasty dish and a 20th-century Mark Rothko painting.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: A curator fell in love with the dish - simple lines, rich color - red - made for an emperor in 1430. Rare, maybe just 35 of them left; gorgeous - she wanted it for her gallery's collection. Jan Stuart showed the dish - it's really more like a shallow bowl - to experts, board members, national art commissioners. Reaction?

JAN STUART: Oh, I get it. It's like Rothko.

STAMBERG: The bowl was bought. A concept was born. Put it on view with a Mark Rothko painting from the National Gallery. His luminous work layers different tones of red into two vertical rectangles. The result? A mini show brought together by color. The Ming reminds Jan Stuart of fruit.

STUART: The dish has a glaze that is like crushed raspberries.

STAMBERG: Imperial potters mixed a tiny amount of finely ground copper oxide into their glaze - very tricky - to get the right red.

STUART: So difficult.

STAMBERG: Too much copper, you get liver color; too little, it totally disappears in the firing.

STUART: It is the single hardest color to control in the kiln.

STAMBERG: The colors change as the piece cools, depending on where it sat in the kiln. The single glaze gives the old dish two tones of red. The bottom is dark, dark orange. The sides are crimson. You can see it at npr.org. The result had to be perfect - nothing but perfection for the emperor.

STUART: Hundreds and hundreds of these were destroyed.

STAMBERG: Jan Stuart says this was a ritual dish. The emperor used it in prayers.

STUART: He would have filled it with probably fruit and put it on an altar during ceremonies to the sun.

STAMBERG: Eventually, the imperial potters stopped making these red dishes. In the 18th century, the court tried to revive them with no luck. An apocryphal story goes that one potter even sacrificed himself to achieve it.

STUART: He threw himself in the kiln.

STAMBERG: In hopes that the secret of the red would be revealed for him to pass on to living potters.

Suicide is also a tragic connection between the Ming and Rothko reds. Known for contemplative colors shapes that vibrate, the American painter ended his own life in 1970. But years before, Mark Rothko made more than 30 murals for the Seagram Building in Manhattan. One of those is at the Sackler. It's magnetic.

STUART: You're being pulled in. One red seems warmer and happier. One red seems very somber. So it's trying, I think, through the movement of the colors and the shapes, to make you feel a range of emotion.

STAMBERG: Eventually, Rothko withdrew from the project. He realized the building's busy restaurant was not the place for artistic contemplation. His theory about the power of colors couldn't flourish there.

STUART: Colors are to inspire ecstasy, tragedy and doom.

STAMBERG: Mark Rothko wrestled alone with his colors and canvases. In China, 72 pairs of hands helped create the copper red dish - mining the clay, cleaning it, shaping the pot, mixing the glaze. At the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery until late February, curator Jan Stuart says the dish and the painting are thrilling evidence of the power of color.

STUART: There is a kind of a beauty of red. You could almost weep with the beauty of red. I feel it equally in both - color, texture, mood emotion.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

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