Mark Rothko: The color of tragedy

Mark Rothko proved to be the ultimate outsider. He always painted alone; he retreated from the social realm, refused to participate in group exhibitions, insisted that his works have a room of their own.
Mark Rothko proved to be the ultimate outsider. He always painted alone; he retreated from the social realm, refused to participate in group exhibitions, insisted that his works have a room of their own. Courtesy photo

“Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out” by Christopher Rothko (Yale University Press, 328 pages, $35)

The colors shimmer as they hang before you, one irregular rectangle above another. There is nothing else here but feeling and size. Enormous size: up to 12-foot canvases. The colors of the rectangles glow from within, hinting at something more beneath the surface. They express one thing only, according to their creator: the drama of the human condition, the tragic sense of life.

Call it color-field painting, if you like, even though that term is too restrictive. But by any name, no one did it better than Mark Rothko, and who better to try to explicate that art’s magic than his son, Christopher, a psychologist and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas?

In 18 essays collected in “Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out,” the younger Rothko examines his father’s career as a painter and his impact on others as a human being. “For my father is embedded deeply in his work, and breathes a fundamentally human spirit into each of his paintings. That humanity speaks to us and serves as a touchstone in understanding these elusive compositions as well as their often-elusive creator.”

Though not an exhaustive biography or high-brow art history, Christopher Rothko’s book is an honest appreciation full of insight and earnestness; it strains to say what can never be said but only experienced as encounter. As interaction. As person and painting one on one.

The rise and fall of greatness

Mark Rothko rose to prominence in the world of New York’s abstract expressionism in the 1940s, hitting his pinnacle in the 1950s and ’60s, then again near the end of his life, which he took by his own hands. For all the spiritual properties his paintings possess, they could not bring him the comfort and consolation he needed to go on living.

His death in 1970 served to reinforce the tragic aura of his paintings’ content. Though non-figurative, they spoke openly and calmly of desolation and loss. That is one reason the paintings remain so haunting; they have the presence of a play by Aeschylus or Sophocles. Fearsome, elemental, chillingly other. Viewers have wept before them, moved beyond their greatest expectations. Others have been repelled, feeling defrauded, showing nothing but the deepest disdain.

Christopher Rothko explains that part of this disparity hinges on the psychology that each viewer brings to the experience. This much is a given. More important, however, he says that his father’s work is fragile, “so dangerously close to nothing that it is easily rendered irrelevant when approached or presented unsympathetically.”

What’s more, the paintings are suffused with Mark Rothko’s feelings, mediated only through color and form. And those feelings can be “fugitive,” with no frame of reference to guide the viewer other than the mysterious panels of color themselves.

The lonely painter

Mark Rothko proved to be the ultimate outsider. He always painted alone; he retreated from the social realm, refused to participate in group exhibitions, insisted that his works have a room of their own, and rejected narrative elements from his art.

Thus, void of all referents to the outside world, his paintings were bursting with feeling. They were meant to present the realization of the elder Rothko’s internal struggles, Christopher Rothko writes.

“To achieve this. Rothko looked to communicate on the most elemental level, to appeal to core emotions, to our common, proto-rational understanding of the universe around us and our place in it.”

What you find in the paintings, therefore, is not nothing, of course, but “an engaged, kindled human spirit that flows through and reaches out from his work.”

Contrary to commonplaces in art history, Mark Rothko’s “paintings are not about color or form, or the process of painting or the process of viewing, and they are not about abstract ideas.” Instead, they are “dramas.” And dramas, we know, inherently involve interactions. For Mark Rothko, that interaction between viewer and painter involves an exchange of feelings. Pure and simple.

Psychologically, our experience of color resembles that of emotion, Christopher Rothko tells us. Color’s impact is immediate and basic – a direct route to the internal workings of the viewer.

An openness to feeling, therefore, makes for a fuller “understanding” of a Mark Rothko painting.

The tragic sense of life

One complaint about Mark Rothko’s classic paintings is that they are static; they go nowhere. But Christopher Rothko calls his father’s paintings “gestalts – carefully balanced visual wholes” – in which movement is vital. That movement involves delving into the many-layered construction of the painter’s inner world. A world that, according to Mark Rothko, is intrinsically tragic.

For him, tragedy was “the ultimate expression of the common experiences of mankind … the defining elements of what it is to be human.”

If tragedy speaks the final word on the classic works of Mark Rothko, there is still much to be said about the rest of his art. And from the outset of his book, Christopher Rothko proclaims that he wants to examine “the essential unity that exists across his (father’s) oeuvre.”

“I propose only that a different kind of understanding may be gained by looking at the corpus of his work as a unique and continuous entity with its own internal logic and pathways.”

And so Christopher Rothko details the early works, figurative and surrealistic. He elucidates the Black and Grey period of the late 1960s. And he is particularly strong on analyzing his father’s suicide and viewers’ fascination with it. Rather than confusing the artist with his art, Christopher Rothko sees it as necessary to focus on the greatness of the art itself, which cannot be reduced to mere biography.

On the contrary, “Great art – art that touches us most deeply – fundamentally directs us to look at ourselves … with a curiosity about what it means to be human.”

“Abstract art simultaneously invites and undercuts any attempt to connect the work to the concrete.” To think otherwise is to distort the meaning of abstraction.

Christopher Rothko has written a passionate, persuasive defense of the greatness of his father’s art. He calls us to have a “conversation” with the classic paintings. And in doing so, to share Mark Rothko’s feelings.

The surface of the canvas, according to Christopher Rothko, is there only to serve the expression of the painting’s content. And that content – the paintings’ artistic “truth” – lies in the interaction between painting and viewer, between Mark Rothko and us. Person and painting. One on one.

Arlice Davenport is books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256.