Rothko’s Paradox

Mark Rothko, Untitled, c. 1950/ 1952, Oil on canvas. The Tate Modern Museum, London

 All art is paradox. But Rothko, perhaps more than any other modern painter, embraced the paradox and threw it profoundly in our faces.

The canvas is flat. You can’t enter it. You can’t go through it, if it’s hanging on the wall. At least without injury and perhaps a heavy bill from the gallery. But Rothko continuously tells the audience to do just that. Embrace the painting, enter it, walk into it, let it engulf you and torture you and shake you. Shake the core of you. He wants the painting to be a plane and an entrance way in the same bright moment. Flat and omnipresent. Pressed against the wall as it surrounds you. And he wants you to accept the paradox and reject it long enough to succumb.

“We favor the simple expression of complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia) in 1903. Rather, Marcus Rothkowitz was born in that place and time. He became Mark Rothko later in life. At the age of 10, he left Russia with part of his family to join the other part in America, arriving at Ellis Island and eventually Portland, Oregon. The culture shock must have been tremendous. From a life filled with the constant threat from Cossacks and the Czar, to one with much more mundane worries. He did, however, have to grow up in a hurry, as his father, Jacob, died not long after their arrival in America. His life from that point on became more and more complex . . .

. . . If one looks only at his most famous paintings, the floating blocks of luminous color, the large canvasses he wants us to enter and celebrate, that person might mistake the surface for stasis, for the lack of evolution and emotion, for a ground that never changed for Rothko. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did his intellectual rationale for his art evolve greatly over time, taking him from an intense study of myths, archetypes, Jung and Freud to Nietzsche and beyond . . . his artistic methods and subject matter evolved as well. Few artists, in fact, changed as dramatically as Rothko, if we look at his career from the 30s until his suicide in 1970. Another paradox. The flat, solid blocks of color, forever floating, and a whirlwind of change before and after.

“I am not an abstractionist. … I am not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. … I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show 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. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

I have sat for many an endless moment in front of his paintings, most recently in Washington D.C. Rather than make me weep, they generally bring me tremendous waves of calm and peace. Even though I’m guessing he wasn’t shooting for that reaction, he never did want to limit them or define them or jail them. Enter the painting was all. Only connect was all.

“Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.”

Of course, it’s impossible to sum up a great artist. And rather ridiculous to try. But I think, in a nutshell, Rothko sought something similar to other great modernists like Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Pound, Eliot and Joyce. To reinvent myths, reinvigorate them, and introduce them back into the cultural stream. Most of the great modernists seemed to want this, saw this as vital, essential for our health and survival. Some thought this could be done only through collecting ruins, fragments, the remnant of civilization. They sensed a scattering and a loss of cultural potency that could never be reversed. Others thought the disorder and fragmentation could be overcome. I think Rothko falls into the latter category, and his floating blocks of luminous color contain the detritus of civilizations long gone. Paradoxically, they surround us with the future.


Rothko’s Paradox
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