Why Does Rothko Move Us?

My first contact with Rothko was quite a number of years ago, when my parents framed a poster print of ‘Light Red over Dark Red’, 1955-57 in our living room. Before I studied art history, my impression of it was simple - what a nice picture, how decorative, what good colours, it even matches the sofa. This impression of a piece of modern art is one that many could get from a Rothko. However, for him, these paintings were so much more than what the canvas initially shows. Through his abstract use of colour and form, he explored the fundamental human emotions of fear and tragedy, reflecting on the essential condition of mankind.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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                                                                         Mark Rothko, Light Red over Dark Red, 1955-57,  http://www.mnba.gob.

                                                                    Mark Rothko, Light Red over Dark Red, 1955-57, http://www.mnba.gob.

Rothko emigrated from Russia to America in 1913 and his first contact with the American avant-garde scene was in 1923 when visiting a friend at the Arts Student League of New York. Throughout his early career he was influenced by the modernist painter Milton Avery, as well as Matisse and the surrealist’s use of myths and symbols to explore human tragedy. However Rothko did not want to follow artistic tradition and in 1947 his work became completely abstract. This work has epitomized American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and 60s.             

Rothko himself said ‘I am interested in the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.’ On the surface his canvasses express nothing more than rectangular shades of pure colour; however Rothko infused his work with mythology on a deeper underlying level. He was heavily influenced by psychologist Carl Jung’s theories on the collective unconscious and archetypes, and many of his early works centre on universal symbolism and myths. He abandoned any recognizable subjects and simplified the forms until his canvasses contained nothing more than the iconic floating rectangles on fields of luminous colour. However he still stressed that these canvasses were not non-representational and meaningless. Rather, the simplified forms and radiant hues of colour communicate in a much more fundamental way metaphysical ideas he was expressing. To him, it was the ‘simple expression of complex thought.’ 

...he still stressed that these canvasses were not non-representational and meaningless. Rather, the simplified forms and radiant hues of colour communicate in a much more fundamental way metaphysical ideas he was expressing. To him, it was the ‘simple expression of complex thought.

Human emotion is central to Rothko’s work and process. The simplicity and stillness conveyed in his works express universal collective experiences appealing to the essentials of human existence. He designed his canvases to evoke a transcendental state of feeling, an immersive experience that the viewer should meditate upon. A work of art to him was supposed to evoke a feeling, not merely describe one. Therefore it is not surprising that Rothko is one of the most wept over artists when confronted with this vast expanse of nothing but incandescent colour and hazy geometrical forms. It is overwhelming.

Rothko acknowledged the power of art by saying ‘the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.’ Religious experience is an important element here and it’s not difficult to see why such immersive spiritual environments such as the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas were created. 

   
  
 
  
    
  
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         Mark Rothko, Rothko Chapel, 1971,  http://www.rothkochapel.org

    Mark Rothko, Rothko Chapel, 1971, http://www.rothkochapel.org

Rothko himself would probably be horrified at my poster print in my living room. He insisted on controlling the way his works were displayed as he believed the wrong setting could reduce the work to being purely decorative. He liked his paintings to fill an entire room, with low lighting and not juxtaposed with works by other artists to create a dramatic yet intimate environment. This has led to criticism of the Tate Modern by The Guardian for ‘inciting irreverence towards art’ by housing a Rothko in a ‘noisy, riotous and pop-cultural’ gallery which doesn’t allow the viewer to have the experience the artist would have intended. The sensory and experiential element to Rothko’s work is better suited for a more meditative environment. He was commissioned in 1958 to create a set of murals for a upmarket restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York, but in the end yet gave them to the Tate because to him, the restaurant was ‘a place where the richest bastards in New York come to feed and show off.’

Rothko’s abstract colour fields are never about nothing, and it is never just about the formalist elements as he said himself ‘if you say you are moved only by their colour relationships then you miss the point.’ This is the power of Rothko: even though all those years ago I had no idea of the significance of his work or the meaning imbued in them, I still felt drawn to those colours. The flat misty forms felt like they had a depth and a feeling to them and it attests to the power of art to affect us through the mere use of form, space and colour. To me what makes Rothko so remarkable is the timelessness of his work, and his ability to communicate the most fundamental universal truths through the flat surface of a paint stained canvas.

Notes:

All quotes from Rothko’s wonderful book The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art (1940-1)

On the display of meditative works of art - Guardian article – ‘Why the Tate Modern should show Rothko a little respect.’

On the emotion we express when standing in front of art - The Independent – ‘From Millet's The Angelus to Rothko, why do some works of art make us cry?’ http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/from-millets-the-angelus-to-rothko-why-do-some-works-of-art-make-us-cry-9842231.html

HASTA