Before he began to create the large-scale geometric ‘colour fields’ for which he’s best known, Mark Rothko tried out a variety of styles. Early in his career his paintings were figurative, featuring angular, Schiele-esque women and lonely street scenes. Then there was a Surrealist period, during which he translated images from ancient myth and tragedy into strange, biomorphic dreamscapes. Around this time he wrote about ‘The Omen of the Eagle’ (1942):
The picture deals not with the particular anecdote, but rather with the Spirit of Myth, which is generic to all myths at all times. It involves a pantheism in which man, bird, beast and tree—the Known as well as the Knowable—merge into a single tragic idea.
This not quite understated self-exposition is based on Nietszche’s The Birth of Tragedy, a favourite text of Rothko’s, and its fanciful but potent analysis of Greek drama. In 1938, just prior to this period of conscious and humourless mythmaking, Rothko painted ‘Entrance to the Subway’:
The bleakly urban atmosphere reminds me of Edward Hopper, who painted his famous ‘Nighthawks’ four years later, around the same time as Rothko’s delve into Aeschylus and the ‘collective unconscious’. But such retrospective periodization implies a thematic clean break that isn’t necessarily there. One interpretation might be that ‘Entrance’s’ figures going underground recall the story of Orpheus, the mythical prince of Thrace who descended to Hades to rescue his wife; thereby foreshadowing Rothko’s fuller engagement with myth in the war years. Or put another way, it might be that ideas of isolation, death, and the afterlife, ‘generic to all myths at all times’, featured in his art even in its earliest forms.
I wonder about the man in the background with the illuminated face, who seems, unlike the other two near him, to be watching the couple in the foreground as they begin their potentially fateful journey. The painting is composed of a series of nested rectangles, or maybe more significantly frames, which gird and bound the figures, lending the work a perspectival aspect so structured and recursive as to approach a mise en abyme. The blue railings are prominent, the connotation of imprisonment I think strongly implied. These formal aspects point up the sense of entrapment and a breakdown of interpersonal bonds that characterise Rothko’s work from this time. But there, in the furthest frame, only his head and shoulders on view, looking for all the world like a portrait hanging on a wall, is that uniformed, glowing attendant. Is he about to cry out? I wonder what he’d say to purple-hatted Orpheus. Stop! Don’t do it! There are planned engineering works on all lines!
I spent most of last term in isolation, in my top-floor college room. We—my household and I—came up with several ways to pass the time. We drank, and read, and watched movies together, and performed feats of extraordinary logistical prowess in organising grocery deliveries. But mostly we sat in our rooms, staring at one or the other of various screens.
Rothko, had he been alive, would no doubt have been vehemently opposed to the virtual viewing of his work. For him, there was no substitute for seeing the thing in person. The ‘Rothko Chapel’ in Houston is the apogee (or maybe apotheosis) of his insistence on art as experience; the added suggestion of imminent spiritual revelation provided by the setting a boon to his constant self-mythologising. He claimed that the understanding of an artwork ‘must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker’, which is one way to put it. I don’t think the choice of word is accidental.
But I’ve long agreed with him; the paintings have to be seen in the flesh, so to speak, to be really appreciated. The room in the Tate Britain containing his Seagram Murals (1958-9) is unlike any other room in the gallery, or any gallery I’ve been to: kept at an unusually low level of light, it seems to hum with a strange alien energy, a low-frequency pulse emanating from deep within the canvasses. Pitched just above eye-level, the black and maroon slabs have always reminded me of the monoliths in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s the same sense of otherworldly knowledge and provenance, like an enigmatic missive from a new dimension somehow discovered on Millbank.
The ‘colour fields’, as Rothko never called them, aren’t the paintings. They’re what’s in front of the paintings. The art historian Anna Chave suggests that they function like ‘veils’, construing the paintings as evoking ‘things only partially apprehended’. I tend to think of them as screens. In this painting from 1961, the sheer scale of it, the expanse of inscrutable colour, is viscerally affecting, is crushing: it always makes me feel finite, inadequate, limited. Viewers often break down in front of Rothko’s canvasses, their impenetrability and sense of submerged violence too much to bear.
Is a computer screen really like an abstract painting? It sounds like the start to a bad joke. I wanted to write this piece to try and work out why I ended up turning to Rothko while self-isolating; why I spent so much time looking at his paintings on my laptop, reading books about and by him; whether there was some connection between my experience and his art even if that connection was only valid in my head. One possibility is in the quality of the surreal that arises on staying in one room for weeks on end. In the middle of a crisis, I suppose you never really think, even have time to think, about all the oddities we’ve grown accustomed to. All the new vocabularies, the routines, the statistics checked like weather in the morning. But when you’re in the strange timeless quiet at the centre of that crisis, faced with the paradox of doing the right thing by doing nothing at all, the sheer weirdness of it all can sneak up on you. I wrote in my notebook one day that it was like living in a thought experiment; being forced every day, several times a day, to make ethical decisions that would be patently absurd if they weren’t so upsetting.
Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, another New York-based Abstract Expressionist, wrote in a letter to the New York Times in 1945 that ‘our paintings […] combine shreds of reality with what is considered ‘unreal’ and insist upon the validity of the merger’. At the time Rothko was still producing slightly dismal rehashings of psychoanalysis and Greek drama, but the work of combining the real with the unreal continued throughout his life and career. For him, the distinction was questionable in the first place. Facts are just especially successful fictions; art is ‘the statement of the artist’s notions of reality’, as Rothko wrote elsewhere, and abstract art, the art of emotion and idea, is the most direct way to make that statement.
In his final years, Rothko subtly but significantly altered his compositional method. In his last paintings, the luminous shades, hues of crimson like the inside of a body, are gone: everything’s black, grey, white. He stopped ‘underpainting’, the practice of repeated layering which gives the 1950s masterpieces their hovering, humming ambience; and he added a thin white border of about a centimetre thick around the canvas. The effect is flat, anoxic, stifling, and deathly still. Rothko’s paintings are famous for their sense of enigmatic silence, in the earlier work a cosmic withholding, like the presence of an Old Testament God, everywhere present but invisible, one whose name we dare not speak. In the last paintings, it’s just silence. The silence of emptiness, the silence of deep space and the grave.
Many have read into these crushingly empty last works an admission of failure: Rothko, who spent his whole career, in his own words, trying to achieve ‘the elimination of all obstacles between painter and idea’ and to transmute that idea in its purest form to the viewer, is at the last denying the possibility of participation, of communication. He committed suicide in February 1970.
A few days after going home at the end of term, I walked in the cold to the Tate to see the Seagram Murals. Wearing a mask and keeping several paces apart from other visitors, I sat in the middle of the darkened room and looked at them, trying to hear something behind the silence. I wanted to go back the next week, and take in some other collections in the gallery as well, but the day after my visit London was moved up a tier of restrictions, and all museums and galleries were ordered to close. So they there are again, the Seagram Murals, paintings which were ultimately rejected by the New York restaurant that had commissioned them on the grounds that they would put diners off their food. Alone, again, radiating their strange power to nobody.