A Walk Through Rothko’s Works on Paper

I took one of my Art Look walks today. In 33 minutes I arrived at the gates of the National Gallery of Art, East Wing. I went there to see the works on paper by the artist, Mark Rothko. My friend Dana, who lives in our building and works on Capitol Hill for a US Senator from Alaska, told me to go see it. She was moved. I have been moved for years by Rothko. I gave a talk on A Course in Miracles a while back at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Tara Singh, my Teacher of A Course in Miracles, always praised the work of Rothko, and had a replica of one of his paintings on the cover of one of his books, and on a few of his audio tapes. Rothko has been on my mind.

When I went to the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1973, Rothko had only recently committed suicide in 1970. The shock of it all was still in the air. He overdosed on barbiturates and slit his wrist with a razor blade to make sure. Janis Joplin had overdosed the same year as well, on heroin. A year later, the famous photographer, Diane Arbus, followed in Rothko’s method—barbiturates and a blade. Pollock got himself rip-snorting drunk and killed himself in a car crash (intentionally or not). Van Gogh shot himself in the chest. Artists, it seems, are very good at suicide when they deem their time is up.

Yet, here we are, still looking at their incredible artistry, which seems well on the way to being Immortal. The Immortality of Mortality. Is this what great Art is about? I had to take pause on my walk to the National Gallery to revisit Rothko. We have this bracket of time to build something, to express something, and what will that be on the “shelf life” of our destiny? And does our destiny have a shelf life? Questions weighing on my mind as I walked up to the National Gallery on a semi cloudy day in late January got my thoughts a churning.

I could have been upset

I could have been upset when I discovered my favorite terrace cafe on the top floor of the East Wing was closed to the public on Monday through Wednesday. It was obviously filled with museum staff, lounging and having their leisurely cup-a-Joe, doing what I normally like to do when I first arrive at the National Gallery. I like to sit, sip a cupper, and write in my journal a few impressions of the day, especially to get the creative juices flowing in the mood of this Art Look. The 33 minute walk itself is usually the prelude for a piece of the Art Look, as my awareness hones itself through the sights and sounds encountered along the way. This is an Art Look, but I could just as easily say simply, it is A Look that goes beyond Art.

I could have been upset to be deprived of my cafe, but I was already in the elation of looking. There is a visual beauty everywhere, and my 33 minute saunter is always a free form encounter with the simple and immaculate. So how could I be upset in the absence of one delight which is replaced by an equally ecstatic or tactile presence of another delight? My walk yielded some remarkable things as shown above. We all have this ability to Look, and see the beauty of common things around us.

On to the thing at hand

I collected my disappointment of a closed cafe and turned myself back around, down the short escalator to the mezzanine and to the entrance of the Rothko show. The first room was filled with small watercolors from the 1930s. Mark lived in Portland first, where his family had immigrated in 1913 from Latvia when he was 10 years old. Latvia was part of the Russian Empire at the time. He was a voracious reader and exceptionally bright for his age. Mastering English easily, the boy was put ahead a couple of grades in school. His father died soon after the family immigrated, of colon cancer. Youngest of five children, Rothko helped the family survive by selling newspapers from his uncle’s warehouse.

Painting was not yet in the major forefront of his creative endeavors. However, he managed to explore a kind of Cezannesque passion for landscapes in water color on a modest scale. These were done while in and around Portland, Oregon.

Untitled Watercolor painted in Portland, Oregon.
Oregon Landscape of the early years

A good student he was, and in a few years Rothko received a scholarship from Yale in 1921. Not really fitting into the bourgeois upper crusty environment of elitism at an Ivy League school, the young man dropped out after the first year, his scholarship not having been renewed. Yet, in spite of this exit from academia, he was a voracious reader and always kept his mind moving with the au courant thoughts of the day.

Eventually he moved to New York in 1923, took classes at the the Parsons School of Art from Arshile Gorky, and at the Art Students League from Max Weber. He met other various European artists who began showing their work in New York. Paul Klee and George Rouault were influential. Later in the 1930’s a tight knit group of artists gathered around the artist / teacher Milton Avery. These aspiring young painters—Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnet Newman, Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner—were among those colleagues who began exploring the world of abstract painting and expressionism that was later to form the New York School. Yada Yada Yada. The rest is history.

Figure from the 1930s

Beyond Cubism and Surrealism

Prewar New York City was still under the strong influence of a European Mecca of aesthetic and philosophical establishment. Many young artists were first generation immigrants, so they looked back to a tradition within the grasp of blood, family, and cultural tradition from the Old World. One foot in the New World as a matter of necessity, their artistic independence not yet formed, they yearned for some expression of their own—something uniquely American in their gestures upon the canvas of their transplanted destiny.

Cubism and Surrealism were the early 20th Century contributions that came on waves across the Great Water to influence those young and impressionable artists practically just off the boat from Ellis Island, Rothko being one of them. We can see in this Figure Looking at a Picture the influence of these major painting movements converging in the young man’s exploratory psyche.

Figure Looking at a Picture

Yet, a deeper movement into a kind of lexicon of symbols from some psychic cache of marks and signs was emerging in the greater matrix of New World subject matter. The young artists in New York just before WWII were pushing the boundaries of meaning, and attempting to find the crux of the matter in the strokes and gestures of the act of painting itself. Swirls, strokes and signs that began forming a language independent of depicting something “outside the picture” was beginning to take shape. These almost arrived master painters were beginning to find the new in some grand stroke of genius not yet formulated, but on the tips of their taciturn brushes, pondering in front of a thoroughly blank canvas. They yearned to go beyond the fragmentations and dreams of Cubism and Surrealism and find the Source of Painting within themselves.


Touch stones of a new vision

The break with anecdotal reference had to first go through a phase in which the gestural marks of drawing and painting still took on the suggestions of symbols. The imagination is apt to animate the marks into some overall drama of characters. A scene in which these “characters” of very definite markings & scribbles interact is undoubtedly implied. “Room in Karnak” and “Omen” are such paintings. The forms still take on personalities, almost an anthropomorphic presence. A horizon line sets a stage for action. The stage is filled with a story to be told, and the various forms interact to compose this narrative. You decide what their characters and interaction have to say on this obvious stage of kinetic drama.

“Room in Karnak”
“Omen,” a scarlet and gray composition

Painted in the late 1940s after the knowledge of the Holocaust, there is a lurking Post WWII sorrow that permeates the mood of these works. Over 60 million people lost their lives in the conflict. Man’s inhumanity to man was paramount. Artists were in shock over such a devastating fact of human existence, and were reaching for something within themselves as an antidote to hopelessness. They yearned to express something beyond the insanity of it all, that would give meaning to the meaningless, and a liberation from the nightmares of war. For Rothko, the first results of this coping came out in the ominous moods of these pictorial “Omens.”

A new vision was about to emerge, but the step had not yet been clear. The movement forward was tainted as yet by the content of an attempted but troubled reconciliation with the immediate horrors of the global conflict. In this escape into a world of pillars and marks and orbs, scratched into the field of a somber emptiness, there is a bleakness of an aftermath, a picking up of pieces that somehow do not reconstruct what has been lost. A hint of new life is just that—a hint. Will it take shape and repopulate? One cannot yet tell. The tragedy is too fresh in the 1940s to foresee the fate of the human race. Rothko’s marriage to his first wife was on the rocks by 1944. This sent out its trajectories of estrangement over a basically devastated horizon of somber space.


Immortal Musings

Something is to emerge. Rothko’s divorce, the devastation of the war coming to the forefront of his awareness, and the impetus to find another way all converge in this sensitive being’s readiness to give meaning to his act of painting, which had been stripped of heretofore meanings. For many creative people the war changed everything. The old ways and forms did not speak truth anymore, but rather had lost all meaning. Painting was approaching a new door through which all other approaches had been wiped away.

There are immortal elements to the object of painting itself. One needs a Ground on which to paint. This is essential. Most traditionally this is on a cave wall, an architectural surface prepared to receive, a wood panel, a canvas, a piece of parchment, vellum, or paper. This is a-priori to the object of painting—the painter needs a Ground, a platform onto which he enacts his gestures of painting.

Next the painter needs colors, pigments, Paint. Paint is a bit of animal fat, beeswax, or egg, or linseed oil, or water, infused with pigments of color with which to stroke and spread around on the Ground. One who paints must have Paint. This 2nd thing is essential to a painting, obviously.

Thirdly, a painter needs a Tool with which to apply the Paint. It could be a brush, a stick, his fingers on his hand, a sponge, a cloth, an air brush sprayer—but it has its own quality that affects how the paint will eventually look when applied on the Ground. The means of application is essential to the end result of the painting.

Fourthly, and perhaps the most metaphysical of all of the Painting Elements, the artist / painter needs a Subject. This is vast. Its influences in this modern age are unlimited. Conventions and canons, though they may be prevalent in the minds of painters in any era, are still open ended to extend and expand the creative Act. It speaks to the necessity inside of the individual artist, but it also speaks to the necessity of his or her Age. The Subject comes out of the influences of the Age in which the painter paints and lives.

Fifthly, there must be an Action. In the bowels of the Painter’s very core there is a drive to Act. This is not taught nor cultivated. It is a God-Given impetus to express something that cannot be expressed any other way. It is a motion of Life Itself, a particular movement in the Cosmic Field of all Movements. When an artist puts his Tool to the Ground, using the Paint he chooses to express his vast and varied Subject, but one that speaks particularly to himself and his Age, Painting can ascend into the greatness of its very Action. And in this greatness, it taps into the Muse of Immortality. When the painter is connected truly to these Cosmic Forces, the Action of the Painter approaches the Divine, the God-Infused objects of creation—like a sun, a moon, an ocean, a river, or a blade of summer grass. Then, when all these Elements have been reverently put in place, the Object of Painting joins with the Gods, and transmits something Immortal.

It was the fulfillment of all of these elements by Rothko in his genius as a Painter to which my ART LOOK, in this foray to the National Gallery to see his “Paintings on Paper,” has been applied.


As if over night the need to tell a story with calligraphic characters on the stage of a post war drama ended in Rothko. Cubism, Surrealism, and all kinds of “Ism’s” ended as well. He only wanted to be with the essentials: Ground; Paint; Tools; Subject, and Action. The act of painting itself became his subject; the medium and the simplicity of the forms became the message. One could not misinterpret when there was nothing to interpret. The new works brought his mind to a mystical silence, which was infusing Rothko and his works with a cosmic space, a hope-springs-eternal in the internal landscape of his soul.

From the simple to the more simple

Mind you, this movement was revolutionary. Never had the essential elements of painting been the subject of the painting. Rothko is quoted as saying, “A painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience.” In other words, all references to something outside of the painting, an anecdote of a scene or even the representation of an object other than the painting itself had ended in him. The subject did what it did when he was painting it—the painting took the viewer on an inward journey of the soul, to the bare essentials of his being. And this was not a referential illusion of rendering skill, not a trompe l’oeil slight of hand, not a technical feat emanating from a painterly wizardry long honed and developed in the schools of beaux arts. This was an Existential Necessity of Being. And Rothko could do nothing else but follow this Immortality of his inner muse.

In the early paintings of this new era of discovery the critics called these works his “multiforms.” Never using that term himself, nor making reference to just what those forms were, the painter seemed to be liberating himself from all conventional subject matter, and turning his attention on the Action of Painting itself. The most basic Ground, the Rectangle, vertically situated in this case, became the field on which Rothko spent his days in an ecstatic dance of the brush. The simple choice of a few painting elements got even more simple. Rothko would use only two or three colors, brushed-out as meadows of color on a contrasting Ground of color, which would enhance the soft edged rectangles that hung over these shallow fields in a vibrant whir.


The immortal in the “mortal”

These works on paper, though smaller in scale than Rothko’s canvas works, transcend size and even the painting elements themselves. We look at these paintings as they are in the present, with all the power of an expression of the most profound spiritual connection. Who are we but this immortal proposition composed of seemingly mortal matter? We cannot look at Rothko’s work without transcendence. We are elevated into a spiritual space that speaks of the timeless. We are heart felt in our acceptance of something beyond our mortal bounds.

Red on Red

The fact that Rothko made sure many of these paintings on paper would be mounted on stretched canvases or wood panels and left open, glass free, speaks of his insistence on their immediacy—and vulnerability. He wants us to encounter them with nothing in between. He wants us to come across the rawness of their elegance, unencumbered by any pretense of presentation too often overdrawn in gallery or museum type settings. We experience them in the actual real time space of now, as if they had just been painted. These master works even transcend history. The fact that they were painted 50, 60, or 70 years ago does not seem to matter. They vibrate in our mind’s eye, within the very core of our Self. They are as incredibly alive now as they were at the moment the wet paint was being swashed and scumbled over the surface of the Ground on Rothko’s day of creation.

Mortal matter is infused with Immortal intent. Yet, we could be swept into a sadness about Rothko’s final end, as suicide seems to linger over his legacy. I found myself having to forgive him for that. Who am I to judge such a thing? I cannot, nor will not use this as a distraction from the Immortality of Rothko’s contribution to all of us. His work opens our eyes to see, and see something far greater than the images we project and think we know. When we approach these works empty, we come into a true space of freedom from the known. We are not being fed a bunch of images that may or may not relate to us. We are given a portal through which we can pass and awaken. We have a meeting with our true Self-Identity.

We come like children in our innocence, not knowing anything but our Immortal reason for being. And we are awakened to the delight of the act of seeing itself. Color becomes brilliant again to us. Color we thought we saw a thousand times before we discover we never saw in truth, but now we do. We step into the essence as a holy being of Effulgent Color and Light. The hues that form such brilliant combinations relate us to our divine nature. We begin to trust God again, as if we never had any doubt of our place in the cosmos, in the holiness of things.


In God we trust

The God that brought forth the Light brought forth Mark Rothko. And that Light shines away the apparent darkness. We know of man’s inhumanity to man on the larger scale, and we endure the lesser cruelties in our own lives, in our own small or large frustrations that seem to accompany every day living. But somehow in these paintings on paper our faith is restored in something Higher—in ourselves and in the cosmos at large. We see the world anew. We are spectrally “born again.” We are infused with the Color of Life Everlasting.

Various times in our life we are meant to have breakthroughs. These breakthroughs are a melding of what we have learned, and what we are willing to “let go” into the great Unknown. We discover in ourselves an implacable trust that Life will take care, and give us the new directions needed to bring meaning to the meaningless, and Immortality to the “mortal.” This is our calling. “In God We Trust” is more than a platitude written on our dollar. It is a clarion call to the the better parts of our Divine nature to rise to the height of our Being, and make a real difference and contribution to the Joy of our daily lives.

The doldrums of despair that may have contributed to Rothko’s conscious departure from the stage of physical existence does not detract from the Light we can see in these remarkable Paintings. His Action of pure Painting, in this case on Paper, speaks of the truth of his real nature. No despair, no consciously decided exit, no perceived “suicide” can ever deny the Immortality that rises above his 66 years of “mortality.” His time here on earth was then and will always be Sacred. We have his transmissions in Paint, on the holy Ground of the the best Art has to offer. His Art of living gave us vision. And this vision of our greatest human ability to see, to look, and be uplifted into a Spiritual Reality is Rothko’s eternal gift for us. His work continues to awaken the Immortal in our own lives, and prompt us to rise above all of our lower thoughts and limiting beliefs of merely an appearance of mortality.

Thank you for reading, Love, Markus Ray

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