Rothko’s Magic

Walking thoughtfully through one of the great art museums, you come across this:



Rothko No. 14 at SF-MoMA

It could be you dislike “abstract art” and keep right on walking until you are out of the room; perhaps you even accelerate your pace. But maybe too, no matter your distaste for abstract art, in this case, you get hooked.  The painting seems to call you over.

There’s a bench in front of the big canvas. You sit down. Something there is…

ImageNo. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

It is a large canvas, half as big as the wall. “I make them big,” said Rothko, “because I want the viewer to feel enveloped within the painting. He should move close to it and get right inside.”

You are sitting only a few feet from the picture and, in fact, it starts to talk. Not with language, of course, but with a strange glow or flimmer or aura that you have never seen or felt in any other painting.  It is as though you look into a dark, yet luminous room, or at a cloud, or across a sea …

What the devil? How does Rothko do that?


Horizontal rectangles of color on a big field, like stripes across a flag. The edges of the rectangles look torn. The colors are pretty but the combinations unusual—they seem to collide or flirt with each other. Look at one rectangle for a moment, get into it, feel its blue or its orange, then look up or down at the one above or below it and get a little shock as you realize you have jumped the fence and are trespassing on another’s property. You were in a desert getting the sun and now suddenly you find yourself in a forest.

ImageFour Darks in Red, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art

The colors of the rectangles vary in intensity. Some are thin and dim, others luminous. The color is not applied uniformly: here, there is a thick, almost opaque patch of it; there, only what is left after a quick pass with the brush, and underneath you see another color peeping through.

The pictures look as though they were painted in a hurry, as if they were sketches made just at the moment when their idea first occurred to Rothko. So there is imprecision everywhere and apparent correction. That gives a freshness to the paintings and a feel of traveling, not yet arriving.

ImageNo. 3/No. 13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949, 85 3/8″ × 65″ (216.5 × 164.8 cm), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art.

The longer you look, the better you realize how intentional everything is, how nothing has been left to accident. The spaces between the rectangles, each irregularity of line or tone has been studied and has its place in the effect. Though at first you might suppose Rothko “merely” took brushes dripping with different colored paint and swept them across the canvas, soon you realize that the paintings are the result of much experimenting and thought.


Rothko said he learned from Matisse, another genius with color. Matisse wrote:

“…color goes beyond itself: if you confine it within some curved black line, say, you are destroying it (from the point of view of this color language) because you are robbing it of all its expansive potential. Color does not have to appear in a prescribed form. For it to do so is not even desirable. But what does matter is the chance to expand. Once color reaches a point that is only slightly beyond its limits, this expansive power takes effect—a kind of neutral zone comes into being where the neighboring color has to enter once it has reached the extent of its expansion. When that happens you could say the paint breathes.”


Rothko’s aim

.He declared that his aim was to address the spirit and the emotions of the viewer. He came to believe that his blocks of colors could “free unconscious energies” and “relieve modern man of his spiritual emptiness.” They could sooth his tortured soul and take him into a land of peace and beauty.

ImageUntitled (Black on Grey), 1970

He counts a lot on the viewer. “A picture,” he wrote, “lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.”  Beauty isn’t the only thing in the eye of the beholder. Artists presuppose a lot of other things in him. The bigger his inner life, the better the artist’s chance of reaching him. Some have vast spiritual worlds inside, with a large population of kindred souls, broad landscapes with mystic mountains and deep seas. By thinking and reading they have extended the rich land they were born with, cultivated it, and established settlements. These are the people an artist wants to show his pictures to. Unless they have strict border controls in the form of prejudices or irrational obstacles, his work can move right in, move around freely, and make itself at home.


Many other artists, especially abstract artists, have declared that their aim was to grace their viewers with a spiritual experience. Matisse wrote: “I am after an art of equilibrium and purity, an art that neither unsettles nor confuses. I would like people who are weary, stressed, and broken to find peace and tranquillity as they look at my pictures.”


When at the end of his career Rothko finally became famous and began to sell his work, he started to worry that people did not understand it and were buying it only as an investment or because it had come into fashion. He was afraid his pretty colors were misleading people about his intentions. “I am not an abstractionist,” he snarled, “and I’m tired of being called a great colorist…My aim is to express basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom…. Color is only an instrument. The fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”


Rothko’s Depression

The color and mood of his paintings changed in the last years. They got darker and darker as “tragedy, ecstacy, and doom” became their stated message.

ImageRothko Chapel in Houston, Texas

Rothko accepted a commission to paint  religious paintings for a chapel designed specifically for their exhibition and contemplation. They were black, dark gray or dark brown.  Some visitors delight in the depth of feeling and “transcendence” they experience as they sit on the benches in the chapel; others either doze off dreamily in contemplation or slump into a willful depression. “The secret to transcendence is the tragic,” said Rothko.


To many, abstract art is handicapped by its absence of cultural elements. The artist can perhaps set free the imagination of the viewer but then lacks the means to control its direction. “Our function as artists,” wrote Rothko in a famous proclamation, “ is to make the viewer see our way, not his.” In these last works, heavy with the artist’s depression, Rothko seems to have gone too far; he bullies the imagination of his viewer with a sort of dictatorial “pronouncement”.


But in his best work, his handling of a painter’s rhetorical devices is brilliant; his eloquence is overpowering. There is, as Robert Hughes put it,  “foreboding and sadness” in some of the paintings and an “exquisite and joyful luminosity” in others. Few other abstract artists have ever been able to make paintings that do what his do. Their attraction cannot be explained by an examination of the elements and their arrangement. There is the magic “something else” of great art— the call to come away from the moment, the invitation to another world, the soothing delight of the beautiful and the mysterious.


Photo_of_Mark_Rothko_by_James_Scott_in_1959 Photo of Mark Rothko by James Scott in 1959



For photos, all displayed here, see fair use posting here.

Rothko by Jacob Baal-Teshuva. Taschen, 2003

Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malévich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still by John Golding, Trustees of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000

Matisse by Volkmar Essers, Barnes and Nobles Books, 1996

Wikipedia biography of Mark Rothko


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