Cracking the Rothko Code

I’m not the biggest follower of high art, but at least once every year I like to do at least one big serious cultural outing – it helps keep creativity and imagination alive in other parts of my life and work. 2008’s (obviously delayed) outing was to investigate an artist I’ve always struggled to “get” – Mark Rothko.

A typical late period Rothko, showing the familiar principlesFor me, the big problem of appreciating this mid-20th century abstract expressionist is understanding why his work – which in the late period covered in this exhibition is essentially simple lines, squares and rectangles called “multiforms” painted on ridiculously huge canvases – should rank as art at all, when it appears so simple that literally “even a child could paint it.” I’m not sure I’m that much closer to answering that particular question, but the Tate Modern exhibition was certainly fascinating and thought provoking.

Two pictures from the late era showing a simple black and grey divide - rather lunar?Rothko’s process and intentions largely remain a mystery to this day, but he certainly seemed to be attempting to strip away any possibility of conventional interpretation of his paintings, even when it appeared otherwise. For example, in his “Black on gray” series – almost the last works he painted – the pictures have a black upper portion and a grey lower part, yet Rothko himself cautioned anyone from thinking of the dividing line as a “horizon” of any sort. Considering how strikingly like a lunar landscape the paintings look – and the fact that they were painted in 1969 when the Apollo missions dominated the news – it’s hard not to interpret them thus, but this would have really annoyed Rothko, as would suggestions that the sombre, dark colours of his last works came from the melancholia and depression that resulted in his suicide the following year.

Close up detail of oneof the Seagram murals showing the flame-like feathery brush strokes and droplets of paintEven knowing that the pictures are intended to defy “explanation”, we humans can’t resist forcing the images to “make sense.” For example, whenever I see the classic Seagrams-era Rothko works, I always think of doors, windows and shutters. I wonder what that says about my state of mind: looking for escape? Or are they windows of opportunity? Where’s Freud when you need him. Equally when looking at a work like “Untitled Mural For End Wall” with its vibrant red rectangular frame shape, it’s impossible for me not to think of fire – and the way that Rothko feathers the brush strokes and let them fly out of the shape’s implied borders seems unmistakably like tongues of flame licking around the canvas. And yet, Rothko would strongly assert that his choice of colour and stroke should be taken to imply nothing of the sort.

As for the absurd scale of the canvases? Some critics have claimed that the size was an attempt made up for Rothko’s lack of substance and I admit that I thought something like that before this exhibition. But Rothko himself explained:

“I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however […] is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!”

One of the more famous Seagrams murals - degradation of the original paints used mean that the blue is fading from the backgroundThe exhibition really proves this point – it’s like the immersion you get from an IMAX screen, and is something like the way that painting it envelops and consumes the artist himself. The size of the works allows you to walk up close and see individual brush strokes and paint droplets. The exhibition’s most fascinating section (for me) was the room detailing the forensic examination of how the paintings were built up, layer upon layer, with the mix of styles and materials employed revealed by the most sophisticated computer scanning techniques available down to atomic level. With such CSI-like attention to detail, I rather think that Rothko is ultimately even more rewarding to a scientist like myself than to professional art critics or casual art lovers.

Black on black - although even this picture shows it's possible to see the shapes that have been built upFor all these reasons, I ended up with my favourite work in the exhibition being one of the “black form” series. Unlike the famous, familiar Rothko works, these are a set of paintings of – wait for it – black shapes on black backgrounds. I know, I can hear you rolling your eyes at the very preposterous and pretentious notion of a completely black canvas, it’s like the ridiculous modern art installation of light bulbs turning on and off, or cattle cut in half in formaldehyde, right? Except that these works cleverly use the different techniques and paints so that you can see begin to see the shiny shapes against matte canvas; and the way the lighting is set means that it plays on the surface and catches the brush strokes. What seems initially blank and featureless becomes endlessly detailed, interesting and surprising, and finally achieving Rothko’s stated intention of producing work that defies “explanation.” I stayed for the better part of half an hour just with this one painting, and could have stayed much longer. I hadn’t expected anything like that.

A rare example of a small Rothko on paper - a gouache study for the Seagrams workAfterwards, as I invariably do after an exhibition of this sort, I bought the Tate’s book of the exhibition along with one covering Rothko’s earlier life and works. It was fascinating to leaf through the pages and see the early paintings … And realise immediately how they were indeed more immature works, and to instantly have a feeling about which ones “worked” and which just didn’t. I might not be able to explain to anyone what art is, but with Rothko at least I seem to be inching closer to “knowing it when I see it.”

[Pictures taken rather covertly with an iPhone under very dimly lit conditions – far from great quality!]


  1. okathleen

    Are they the right way up now?
    What makes art, art? If it endures?

  2. andrewlewin

    I think they are, but I’m not really qualified to say which way is the right way up!

    “What is art” is still the question at the heart of this. If it’s “what endures” then is it too early to judge work that was only painted in the 1950s and 60s? Nor was Rothko much of a success in his own lifetime, he was only successful enough to be able to give up teaching to paint full time aged 58 – and he died aged 66. So is his success building, or it is already fading? Hard to know right now.

  3. peterhay

    Rothko was one of the highest paid artists in his lifetime for the Seagram murals. He was paid US$35,000 by the Four Seasons at the time.

    He withdrew the paintings from the Seagram Building and shipped them to England. On the day they arrived he killed himself.

    I believe that with many of the Abstract Expressionists they reached a saturation point at which they could go no further without compromising their talent. Pollock suffered a similar fate.

  4. andrewlewin

    Yes, I think it was the Seagram commission that finally enabled him to give up teaching and paint full time – but it’s interesting that this success is compressed into just the last 8 or so years of his life. And of course, the Seagram business didn’t end at all well, as you describe – he was horrified at his paintings being used in an exclusive dining room setting and felt them utterly unappreciated.

    Far more successful is the Rothko Chapel in Texas, I believe.

    Did you see this Tate exhibition, Peter? Or will you before it finishes at the end of January?

  5. andrewlewin

    I’m pretty sure that’s still hung vertically in that case. But the article points out, no one knows and even Rothko listed it s a vertical composition at one point:

    The artist himself appears to have changed his mind more than once. A deed of gift he signed in 1969 lists the two disputed paintings as vertical portraits, while the direction of the paint dribbles shows that one of the works was painted at least two different ways up.

    Certainly the others in that part are vertical compositions from what I recall.

  6. Let’s not invoke Freud; he’d just say something sexist.

  7. peterhay, it’s interesting that Clyfford Still lived out his natural lifespan doing abstract expressionism, as he was the first of the group to begin doing abstract. Undoubtedly leaving the art world behind was beneficial to him. The art world killed Pollock and Rothko, not abstract expressionism per se.

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