What Mark Rothko left us to ponder is the Timeless Itself.
Mark Rothko the man was a complex and enigmatic figure, from what I have read. Committed to painting, he was. The harbinger of a new vision, he was. The pioneer who broke totally with any mythic or anecdotal subject matter, he was. The iconoclast who let go of any narrative outside the painted fields of his fuzzy, electrified rectangles of a cosmically colored space, he was. A tragedian, when we look at the events of his life, he was. And, when considering the enduring impact of his work upon three subsequent generations of American painters—a transcendentalist, he certainly was.
We will probably not really know the depth of his pain, or even the rejection of any further ado in that moment on February 25th, 1970, when he took his own life. He was done, in his opinion. And like his painting, we are asked not to draw any unseen stories or self-projected conclusions from the way it ends. It is done, that is all. And, we pick up a new beginning in which we, who still have his paintings to look at, may be inspired, even led, to an expansiveness of our own vision through his hard fought motions of paint. As they are now, Rothko rests in them.
When we think of this painter now, we see him in terms of paintings like these:
Rothko’s tragic sense of life.
Rothko was affected by the movements of his life through various struggles and tragedies. He came with his family as immigrants to America in 1913, before the cataclysms of World War I. His father moved the family from Russia to Portland, Oregon, to avoid the conscription in the Russian Army. Shortly after Markus arrived at age 10, his father died of colon cancer. This put his mother in crisis, and the strain on young Rothko had to impress upon him a tragic sense of life.
A bright mind, Rothko went to Yale on a scholarship. For two years he observed the discrepancies between an upper privileged class well positioned, and the struggling immigrant working class, from which he came. He dropped out of his sophomore year at Yale and went to New York. Soon he discovered a penchant for art. His teachers were Arshile Gorky and Max Weber, at the Art Students League.
An eloquent speaker, and writer, his sense of artistic purpose is summed up here:
“The fact that 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 painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point.”
Painting then, is a religious experience akin to a revelation of something bigger than ourselves, something moving and spurred on by color, but not limited by those relationships alone. “The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures,” shows that there is something more than just a field of two or three colors on a large scale forming a nice design of spectral optics.
Colorist painters made how we see color the subject matter.
When I was a young man studying art at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Rothko was not much on my mind. My teacher was Julian Stanczak, the op-art painter, and his teacher had been Joseph Albers at Yale. I did not give my precedents much attention back then. Albers painted the “Homage to the Square” in his new found freedoms, escaping Germany during the rise of Hitler, having come from being on the faculty of the Bauhaus, a famous school of art and design in Dessau.
Albers was 15 years Rothko’s senior, from a totally different background. From the German school of the Bauhaus, he worked in a very organized architectonic approach to color exploration. He solved the problems of painting through more purely perceptual concerns: how do we see color and its relationship to other colors — almost a kind of science of color. The Homage to the Square was more of an optical laboratory than an existential imperative carved out by Rothko in his larger than life color fields. Rothko insisted upon the emotional impact that went beyond the visual forms. As a romantic, he placed himself at odds with the neoclassical optics of this Bauhaus legacy, one that seemed to sidestep the more dramatic metaphors of the perennial struggles between life and death.
In Rothko, the dramas of life and death are played out.
Rothko was not the only one who had gone through something difficult. Coming of age in the 1930’s in his art career, the Great Depression and the sweeping social pressures of survival were worked out on the canvas. Social realism and the glorification of the working class became poignant subject matter of WPA murals, depicting the rise of industry, on which many artists worked to fend off mere subsistence. But with another World War looming, and the disillusionment growing with the notion of “Western Progress,” artists came to the end of their rope with the propaganda of myths and futile struggles of the proletarian. They sought a subject matter free of any sentimental social high hopes. By the late forties, when Rothko began his most definitive work, the horrors of war, and Hiroshima’s sobering reinforcement of death justified, were well known. Artists in America were psychically and emotionally stripped, and they wanted to express the raw vastness of this void they felt within, against which they were struggling to paint their truth and living mark—one that would uplift, not destroy or ignore the ascendency of the human spirit.
Life is a stroke of painting itself.
Painting is an act of human life. It is a stroke of Life. And the stillness of painting, after that fact, freezes that motion in an enduring object of a forth telling visual tale. The strokes are given unto eternity. Who knows what one will see 1000 years from now, or 30,000 years from now in some urban cave of an architectural ruin. The Life and Death of Rothko is played out in his own painted works, as he intended them to be his enduring theater of painterly action. The “hummm” of the floating hovercraft, like alien ships just arrived on planet earth, are all too real to ignore. We are taken by just the natural force of the things, in which what was alien to us before, is now our native life craft of hope, returned.
Life is a stroke of this painting. Rothko’s actual hands formed them, moved them along into being. The floating crafts emerge. It was no joke, nor academic exercise of combining pretty colors. He had to cover a lot of ground to arrive at this utmost moment of transcendence. He loses himself, and the painting takes over. No longer needed, then man steps back and the vision comes forth. And we are the beneficiaries of this action, after the fact of his own personal diminishment. The paintings endure, and will have conservators hovering over their longevity for centuries. The man, but a name of mythic proportions now.
The darkened hour for Mark Rothko.
It is no surprise that the night of Mark Rothko in his life, and in his painting, was at the end. These later paintings have subtle hints of a new dawn, but this will be in the life of the works themselves, not in Rothko’s time spent on earth. The Rothko Chapel in Houston and the Rothko Room in the Tate Modern in London show this emergence. Yes, they are “dark,” but in all dark things we yearn to see the light. And the light does eventually come to us. We are relieved to know this life was not spent in vain. We have the works, because one man made them so lovingly and carefully, and yes, diligently for us.
What Rothko left us to ponder is the Timeless Itself. And he gave us the portals through which we may go to find this dawn of vibrational transcendence. Through the paintings we are gifted with a certainty that there is only this eternal urge to create, and that none are excluded from its JOYS. It appears as though the facility of the Old Masters may be absent in his work that is so simple in many ways. But on the contrary, the sophistication of his strokes rival a Michelangelo, a Rembrandt, or a Picasso. Do we have the eyes to see this, is the question? The shortcoming of the work, if there is one at all, would reside in our casual refusal to LOOK. This is what “Art Look” is all about—are we willing to give the time, more than seven seconds (which is the average time given to a painting by museum goers,) to actually LOOK!
There is no apology needed for Rothko’s suicide. There is no rotting in hell for him as a result of his taking his own life. Instead we would appreciate his time on earth even more, and perhaps as a God of paint, expressing the ultimate expressions of our feelings while here, as he was feeling the same as we do in our journey through our own particular existence. We all are grappling with an urge between life and death. Rothko was no different. But through his paintings we see an eternal Light of Life, which endures and passes the test and weathering of time. They come to us aglow with not only hope, but an actualization of the truth that drove this genius of a man to paint them.
Thanks for reading,
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Mark Rothko at the Tate Modern in London