Mark Rothko: The Artist's Reality

"the most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees"

Rothko's paintings have been interpreted in terms of light and architecture, as the creation of a sense of place or space which can be entered, and spiritual journeys. One interpretation suggests that in Rothko's paintings, the subject is the origin and fate of humanity as a spiritual (but not religious) drama, that the ending to this drama is not affirmative or optimistic. Not all writers share this pessimistic assessment; for some, the radiating light of Rothko's canvases is supremely transcendent.

The early paintings suggest a preoccupation with the act of looking - both by the subject within the painting and the person who is looking at it.  Vision seems to be an uncomfortable experience, fraught with anxiety and discomfort.

untitled, 1937, o/c (40x30) untitled, 1937-8, o/c (23x18)

The figures in these paintings stare at something which is threatening but unseen by the person who looks at the painting.  In some ways, the person in the painting is trapped by this vision.  Vision in these paintings is almost concrete.  It is a form of space which contains but decenters the person with in it and the person who looks at the painting.  This is a theme which relates Rothko to the early surrealist de Chirico, to Edward Hopper, and most of all, to Vermeer and his paintings of a woman alone (or not alone) but fixed in interior space either by the stare of another person or by light. Containment or confinement in combination with decentering is the creation of a type of movement and constraint; the tension of the creative activity, perhaps, and the tension of the impossible search for transcendence.

In terms of the evolution of his early paintings, they move from compositions with trapped or isolated figures to mythological, archetypal imagery which suggests the turmoil of the inner life of emotions.   From here, we find increasing abstraction (multi-form) paintings (the figures are "pulverized" and become dispersed in the fields of color) until the late 1940s when he begins to make complete abstractions.

Street Scene, 1937, o/c (29x40) Entrance to the Subway (Subway Scene), 1938, o/c (34x46)

The meaning of these "architectural" paintings seems to concern the idea of space as something which contains and traps a person, the difficulties of communicating, and the inner world of emotions.  It is tempting to suggest that the underground world in these paintings is a metaphor of the inner world of emotions and the unconscious.  It is also tempting to look at these paintings as already being steps toward the eventual format of his abstract compositions and early reflections of his belief that the goal of art is to express reality through plastic means, not through description.

Increasingly, Rothko turned to ancient myth, Greek tragedy and Nietszche as sources.  Nietszche is important for his message about the possibility of transcending terror through art.  It is an idea which can be assimilated with Jungian ideas about the archetypal imagery of the collective unconscious.

untitled, 1941-2, oil and graphite on linen (24x32) untitled, 1941-2, o/c (29x36)

The Omen of the Eagle and the Sacrifice of Iphigenia relate to the Greek play Agamemnon, a play about war and the sacrifice of children, born and  unborn.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, 1942, oil and graphite on canvas (50x37)  The Omen of the Eagle, 1942

By the mid-40s, Rothko's imagery is changing again:

Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944, o/c (75x85)

Rothko explained the transition from totemic and biomorphic figures to planes of color in part by saying that "...the familiar identity of things has to be pulverized..."  He also described his forms as "organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion."  This description of the forms in his paintings as living forces or beings is consistent with his description of the work of art as having a life of its own.

As I mentioned in class, in 1940 Rothko stopped painting entirely and devoted himself to reading and beginning to write a book which he called the The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art.  Although he never considered the book finished, he never discarded it.  It greatly illuminates his goals as a painter and his personal understanding of the work of art.

In his book, Rothko compares the painter to a philosopher which leads him to say that art is therefore like philosophy.  As philosophy, the work of art is the creation of a particular notion of reality but in terms of what he calls “plastic speech” - through the use of colors and forms.  He goes on to say that plastic languages change, that there are particular plastic languages which serve particular purposes, but that they only serve art when they generalize beyond the particular.  And like the philosopher, who reduces all phenomena in order to shed light on human behavior or ethics, the artist reduces phenomena in order to inform or shed light on human sensuality.  Sensuality, he goes on to say, is neither objective experience nor subjective experience but something which exists outside of both and therefore contains both.

Later, he tries to explain what the plastic language of art is and how the language is obtained.  Plasticity, he says, is the way an artist creates the effects of movement in space, a sensation or experience of reality as something which moves through time and space.  He then notes that not all artists do this in the same way, that there are many ways to do this, and that the key to the differences between artists and their styles is the way they choose to create or produce this sensation of movement.  This sensation of movement, or the notion of plasticity, can be produced through tactile means, through illusory or visual means, through representational or through abstract.

Yet, although he has defined a painting as a plastic action which states or expresses an artist’s notion of reality, he has not at this point said anything about subject matter.  When he begins to discuss the subject of painting, he immediately distinguishes between the subject matter, or what we recognize in the painting when we look at it, and subject as the intention or reason of that painting.  Here he makes an analogy to the body and the soul of a human being: neither, he says, can exist without the other.  Likewise, in a painting, the plastic cannot exist without a subject.  But what Rothko is saying here is that without color, form, and space, we cannot perceive the sensation of movement or the artist’s reality.  And that if we do perceive this, then we are becoming aware of the painting as something which has a life.  The painting is the premise for a journey which we follow and take, or, as he says a little later, the picture is a vehicle for an experience which lives outside the picture.  That experience, he says, is the experience of plastic continuity.

To quote from Rothko:
“The subject of a painting is the painting itself, which is a corporeal manifestation of the artist’s notion of reality, made manifest through the production on the canvas of objects, or qualities, or both, recognizable or created, which are referable to our experience, either directly or though reasoning.”

Before I read his book, I was attracted to the idea of finding a metaphor in his paintings about the story of the dybbuk. This a story about an individual who ascends through the heavens in a chariot, arriving at the seventh heaven where his journey culminates in front of a throne with the vision of a luminous form, divine glory.  The vision of divine glory is God but it cannot be imaged or visualized because God is invisible.  The sense of glory can be perceived through the luminosity of the vision, a luminosity and radiance which exists in the fields of color, in places translucent, in places bleeding from one field into another so that we cannot truly say which field has been superimposed on the other.  Although I don't want to  reject this narrative, I also don't want to let it distract me from perceiving the sense of movement in Rothko's paintings as the expression of the life force of the painting.

No. 3 (No. 13) (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949, o/c, 85x64 Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red), 1949, o/c (81x66)
untitled, 1968, o/c (92x69)

If Rothko's paintings are about birth and death, on one level, about the encounter of the person with light and with the gaze of an outsider, on another, they are also about a confrontation between the quest for spiritual renewal and the impossibility of every resolving that quest. It is a confrontation between the love of God and the Judaic belief that the person who loves God must kill a part of his soul everyday. The tragedy of this spiritual quest is perhaps enhanced in Rothko's case because he was a Russian Jewish immigrant who was never fully at home in the U.S. or in the world of art. And on top of his own sense of isolation, initially deriving from his inability to speak to English, later it may derive from the conflicts which exist between Judaic belief and the taboo against iconic images. By the late 1940s and early 50s it probably also relates to the belief and feeling that the post-World War II world was hostile to artists, if not to everyone. This climate of hostility in general and isolation in his particular case may have pushed Rothko, as well as other artists, to find a pictorial expression of transcendence, an expression which he seems to have fully achieved in the chapel as a complete work of art.

two views of the interior of the Rothko chapel: