The Art of Mark Rothko
(Some comments from and on the book ‘Mark Rothko, From the Inside Out’, Christopher Rothko, Yale University Press, 2015.)
The quest for meaning was at the root of all Mark Rothko’s work. What he sought was to express the human condition. He sought to speak as directly as possible to us, in our inner selves. He wanted passion dampened by as few mediators as possible. ‘Since I am involved with the human element, I want to create state of intimacy – an immediate transaction.’
Rothko kept returning to the physical relationship between art and the viewer. He said that form and proportion were dominant, but for us, it is likely to be the colours that seduce us. Rothko said that sensuality was his essential way of getting the painter’s message across. In his writing, Rothko expressed sadness that abstraction in modern art had been ‘at great sacrifice in the expression of human passion….and a tragic abnegation of the human spirit.’ He thought perspective had drained the impact of colour. His hero was Giotto who had no interest in creating visual space.
Rothko spoke of his paintings as dramas. ‘The paintings are a stage for human concerns and human dialogue as drama, unlike narrative, inherently involves interaction.’ We speak of psychological dramas, and what we hear from people who love Rothko’s work is that they find the paintings to be moving. Some are moved to tears (just as some react in that way to Casablanca).
The tears tell us that that viewer has been moved, and that some see tragic content in the work. Something on the canvas strikes a chord with the viewer. Rothko saw not just drama but tragic drama – ‘the tragedy of the human condition.’ Mozart was by far Rothko’s favourite composer. His son tells us this:
Mozart generally wears a genial face, his music so tuneful it is frequently canned into packages of background music, much as my father’s work is often reduced to decorative wall covering. But listening to Mozart carefully and openly, one becomes aware of the sadness, the longing, the ache of human suffering. Mozart was ‘smiling through tears’, my father would often say. Perhaps, I would suggest, the same was true for him.
(An English music critic said that the glorious tenor voice of the tragic Swedish drunk Jussi Bjorling was ‘full of unshed tears.’) Mozart, too, expressed complex themes in the simplest way, and most of his music is nothing if not sensuous.
In his Poetics, Rothko’s son reminds us, Aristotle says that the best tragedies arouse ‘pity and fear’. Aristotle said that pity is our response to ‘undeserved misfortune’ and our fear comes from seeing this suffering ‘in one like ourselves.’ (‘There but for the grace of God go I.’) Tragedy then may be the ultimate expression of the common experience of mankind – or just our humanity – and art becomes the lyrical reflection of humanity.
When Rothko offers us a painting, he is making an overture to us. He is saying: ‘We’re not so different, you and I’. He is inviting us to take a journey to explore the tragic drama of human life. In his artistic development, he sought to strip away layers to achieve simplicity and clarity and to achieve the simple expression of something complex. Quite by chance, Rothko’s son, who is a psychologist, stumbled on a formula: content + impact = contact.
And thank heaven, Rothko scotched one rotten myth:
I never thought that painting has anything to do with self-expression. It is a communication about the world to someone else…..You may communicate about yourself; I prefer to communicate a view about the world that is not at all of myself.
Rothko reaches pure abstraction where he is unfettered by tradition and the viewer is unfettered by social context.
The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer….To achieve this clarity is, inevitably to be understood.
That last proposition might be safer, or less optimistic, when applied to writing rather than painting, but the stand taken by the painter is fundamental to understanding his work. Rothko was not a religious Jew; a major commission was for a Catholic chapel; but his insistence on clearing away blocks between artist and his viewer has a Protestant air about it.
Compared to the forms, the colours suggest a type of abandon. The end result is the painted expression of what it is to be human – ‘This is what it feels like to feel this way.’ He is looking for a chemistry between us and him, ‘a primal, preverbal communication’ conveyed by the painting. He wants to get across to us feelings that can’t be put into words. So did Mozart. (And if you put to one side porn and hookers, so does sex.) And as his son remarks, ‘if Rothko’s works still make us uncomfortable, then perhaps it is not comfort we should be seeking.’
But even in the early figurative paintings, a similar drive to embrace humanity can be seen. Rothko was a socialist painting during the Great Depression, but he was not painting the suffering of the ‘masses’. He was looking at the individual struggling for air. He was the reverse of the ideologue – he was looking at you and me, and not ‘the proletariat’. What Christopher Rothko calls these ‘framed, cramped figures’ look to be trying to break free, to be liberated, and we are reminded of Kafka as he was writing at about the same time. Aristotle also said that ‘Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life.’ Yes, but we get there by looking at persons, not by looking at abstractions.
So, when Christopher Rothko says his father wanted to express the inexpressible, what he was saying is that his father sought to express emotions – or, if you prefer, sentiments or ideas – in paint that he could not express in words – and which we may be at best presumptuous if we try to express in words. The son does refer to the old adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. But one of his father’s better known remarks is:
I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.
And whatever else you may say of Rothko’s paintings, he did compose them (and, for my part, I don’t get the sense that that composition came without a fight). Christopher says:
The paintings are, in fact, my father’s abstracted notion of reality – his generalisation of the truth – communicated through emotional, sensual experience.
If, that is right, then for once a label – Abstract Expressionism – may have some merit.