In Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, James Elkins writes that if a scientific survey were attempted, Rothko would emerge as the 20th century painter whose works most often elicit tears from viewers. He speculates that "this may be because certain Rothkos can overcome the viewer with a sense of emptiness, a suffocation of the senses."
Mark Rothko, No. 37/19 (Slate Blue and Brown on Plum), 1958
Mark Rothko, Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas, 1971
On rare occasion, when I cry in front of an artwork, it's usually the color that elicits the emotion. The first time this occurred was in Edinburgh, Scotland in front of a piece of Egyptian faience. I still can't explain why. I stood in front of faience in the Louvre a year before this so I was well acquainted with the material but it must have been the mass of color - the object was approximately one foot square and it was presented like a wall plaque (though I have no recollection as to what it was). I fall into the category of James Elkins' masses when I admit to Mark Rothko's work producing tears. Rothko wanted us to view his work up close (18 inches was ideal) and my proximity to his canvas directly reflects my emotive response. The closer I get, the more I'm overwhelmed due to surrounding myself with this color, this emptiness, this void.