34. Rothko and Sensitive Observers

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“When a crowd of people looks at a painting, I think of blasphemy… I believe that a painting can only communicate directly to a rare individual who happens to be in tune with it and the artist.”1
Mark Rothko

On Sunday, June 13, 1943 in The New York Times, under the title ‘Globalism’ Pops Into View, Edward Alden Jewell allowed Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko space to respond to his previous weeks criticism of their works, The Rape of Persephone and The Syrian Bull, about which Jewell had expressed “befuddlement.”2 The artists wrote:

“We refuse to defend them not because we cannot… No possible set of notes can explain our paintings. Their explanation must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker.”3

Such an extreme denial of any attempt to criticise, or explain, their work appears at first glance to apply far more to Rothko’s later classic works than to The Syrian Bull and its contemporaries.

The Rape of Persephone by Adolph Gottlieb, 1943
The Rape of Persephone by Adolph Gottlieb, 1943
The Syrian Bull by Mark Rothko, 1943
The Syrian Bull by Mark Rothko, 1943

By his classic works I mean the paintings in his later career, such as No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 or No. 14 1960.

No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 by Mark Rothko, 1954
No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 by Mark Rothko, 1954
No. 14 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960
No. 14 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960

So, let us cast forward from 1943 into Rothko’s prime years.

On October 27, 1958, Rothko, according to Dore Ashton and James E. B. Breslin, gave his last public statement. Speaking without notes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, his lecture ranged across many issues to do with his work, such as: self-expression; Nietzsche; communication; artistic ‘ingredients’; Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling; his work as a façade; and human values. It is within this last issue that we can find an initial topic for reflection courtesy of Breslin’s retrieval of a transcription from this lecture:

“I belong to a generation that was preoccupied with the human figure and I studied it. It was with utmost reluctance that I found that it did not meet my needs. Whoever used it mutilated it. No one could paint the figure as it was and feel that he could produce something that could express the world. I refuse to mutilate and had to find another way of expression. I used mythology for a while substituting various creatures who were able to make intense gestures without embarrassment. I began to use morphological forms in order to paint gestures that I could not make people do. But this was unsatisfactory.”4

Slow Swirl at the edge of the sea by Mark Rothko, 1945
Slow Swirl at the edge of the sea by Mark Rothko, 1945

Rothko concluded his lecture, before questions, by stating that his current paintings were “involved with the scale of human feelings, the human drama, as much of it as I can express.”5 Quite evidently, then, Rothko gave the version of his artistic progress as one that throughout all of its manifestations was preoccupied with the ‘human.’ Whilst being a succinct overview from the man himself, we are still left with many questions about his progression: What was ‘unsatisfactory’ about his morphological forms? How did he get to his last format, his classic works? What was it about this last format that made Rothko believe it was the best way he could express the “scale of human feelings”? This final question is, for us, the most relevant because it is concerned purely with Rothko’s mature, or classic, work.

The change to the last format, arguably, started to ferment in 1949 when Rothko began to simplify his work into multiforms, such as No. 20, 1949.

No. 20 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949
No. 20 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949

In this transition year he also published a statement in Tiger’s Eye, a quarterly journal run by Ruth and John Stephen, in which he outlined what he saw as a painter’s teleology – their goal:

“The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer. As examples of such obstacles, I give (among others) memory, history or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from which one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.”6

No. 4 / No. 32 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949
No. 4 / No. 32 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949

Ashton describes this statement in conjunction with the actual works themselves as a “purging”7 of allegories, in order to facilitate what Breslin calls a more “immediate communication”8 between work and viewer. Anna C. Chave reworks Rothko’s statement to try and give a more exact description:

“As he developed the format of his classic pictures, Rothko stopped formulating arrangements of cryptograms that look as if they could or ought to be deciphered (perhaps yielding messages from history or memory) but which frustrated efforts at doing so. He became determined not to mystify viewers with such obfuscatory ghosts of ideas but to paint something clear instead.”9

Untitled 1953-54 by Mark Rothko, 1953-54
Untitled 1953-54 by Mark Rothko, 1953-54

So, whilst realising the danger of comparing two artists and categorising them as following the same course, we can see a similarity between Pollock and Rothko, because Rothko’s elimination of ‘obstacles’ resembles Pollock’s removal of imagery, object, and form. There is also another affinity between the two, this time in terms of how their works were critically received. Pollock’s work, if we remember, was devoid of any impermeable, or otherwise, inner core of meaning and as such necessitated a radical re-evaluation of criticism that gave rise to such innovative descriptions as David Novros’ ‘total resolution’ (see post 32). With Rothko, a similar gauntlet was thrown down, and Stephen Polcari in Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience rose to the challenge by providing three descriptions of Rothko’s mature work, with the latter two pursuing more radical lines of critique. The first, however dealt purely with what a ‘Rothko’ visually presents:

“Rothko’s mature paintings consist of several parallel rectangles, often similar in value but different in hue and width, extended to the edges of the canvas. The shapes lack distinctive textural effect, seeming to be veils of thin color applied with sponges, rags, and cloths as well as brushes. Line has been eliminated altogether.”10

Untitled (Lavender and Green) 1952 by Mark Rothko, 1952
Untitled (Lavender and Green) 1952 by Mark Rothko, 1952

Such a description, whilst being visually accurate, remains merely a description and, as such, has little value beyond stating the obvious. With his second attempt, though, Polcari identifies an aspect of Rothko’s own agenda for his art: “The challenge facing Rothko in the 1950s was to transform his ideas into new pictorial form and into immediate emotional experience.”11 Finally, within Polcari’s last description real value begins to be added as he situates Rothko within his contemporary intellectual climate:

“The existentialism and emotionalism in cultural circles of the late 1940s and early 1950s undoubtedly also played a role in Rothko’s new directness of expression…. It was part of a major shift toward involvement in the individual life as opposed to the deep concern with cultures and civilizations that had characterized intellectual life in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s American culture turned from an emphasis on grand historical questions to a more Kierkegaardian concern with the individual’s own struggles for life and preservation of integrity.”12

No. 12 1951 by Mark Rothko, 1951
No. 12 1951 by Mark Rothko, 1951

With such a shift towards the problems facing an individual, as opposed to dealing with wider social issues, Polcari coolly highlights Rothko’s concern with what it is to be a human. With his second description, focusing on the ‘emotional experience’ and the last concerning itself with the individual’s life, Polcari helps to sway criticism away from such misunderstandings endured by Rothko at the hands of some of his contemporaries. Margaret Breuning in Art Digest decided that Rothko’s apparent lack of compositional expertise in his 1949 Betty Parson’s exhibit warranted admonishment: “The unfortunate aspect of the whole showing is that these paintings contain no suggestions of form or design.”13 In 1955 Emily Genauer of The Herald Times remarked upon Rothko’s one-man show at Sidney Janis’: “Rothko’s pictures get bigger and bigger and say less and less.”14 Instead, Polcari, writing some twenty years after Rothko’s suicide in 1970, appears to be addressing some of these critical wrongs and assisting a new line of criticism which focuses not on how or what is painted on the canvas, but rather on what the artist was trying to express and how that was to be imparted. The distinction that Polcari brings to bear on Rothko’s work can be viewed as that which revolves around experience as opposed to interpretation.

No. 14 1963 by Mark Rothko, 1963
No. 14 1963 by Mark Rothko, 1963

By removing the “obstacles” and also refraining from naming his works, Rothko created paintings that enable viewers to approach his art, according to Chave, in the spirit of “a pure and unique experience, for which [they] should not be prepared.”15 Such ‘non-preparation’ by Rothko was an implicit rejection of any criticism by art historians or critics. Indeed, Chave succinctly links these two aspects: “Like many abstract artists, [Rothko] tried not only to eradicate narrative or text in his art but, by the same stroke, to render superfluous the interpretative texts of critics.”16 Interestingly, Nicholas Serota, in his Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, touches on this theme when he argues that museums of modern art have become less like “curatorial interpretation[s] of history” or extensions of the classroom, to be more like arena’s for experiential contemplation of a particular artist within a space that has been controlled more by “the maker than the curator.”17 The importance of the experience of Rothko’s work, however, goes beyond curatorial concepts.

No. 118 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961
No. 118 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

Polcari’s second description which suggested the importance of “immediate emotional experience” contains a vast amount of potential discussion within its simple annunciation. Irving Sandler opens our exploration into this area of interiority by recognising the essential quality of the viewer to Rothko’s work:

“Rothko allows the viewer a certain freedom of response by his self-effacement and reticence. Hence his canvases are protean to the degree that they invite the viewer to complete their tragic message; his monologue turns into a dialogue.”18

The reaction of the viewer was always foremost in Rothko’s mind whilst painting. Indeed Breslin, in his biography of the artist, cites numerous occasions where Rothko would invite friends to preview his latest work and then watch them for the slightest indication of any kind of response to the work. Such viewings became notoriously trying encounters for all concerned. Rothko would be anxious as to the reaction to his work, whilst the viewer would be nervous as to the possibility of giving what the artist considered an inappropriate response. Even so, such was the importance of the viewer to Rothko that in correspondence to Katherine Kuh in 1954 he wrote:

“If I must place my trust somewhere, I would invest it in the psyche of sensitive observers who are free of the conventions of understanding.”19

Tan and Black on Red 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957
Tan and Black on Red 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957

This statement Ashton juxtaposes to a comment Rothko made to William Seitz in 1950 where he had expressed “that writing on art should never be comparative, historical, or analytical, but should record direct responses ‘in terms of human need’.”20 The intimacy of the viewer’s response, then, was evidently Rothko’s desire, which is beyond mere technical appreciation and must be conducted within certain parameters that allow for such an intimacy to occur. Indeed, Breslin recalls Rothko remarking the following:

“When a crowd of people looks at a painting, I think of blasphemy… I believe that a painting can only communicate directly to a rare individual who happens to be in tune with it and the artist.”21

Such an experience Arthur Danto rightly states “cannot be an ordinary experience, like that of witnessing a scaffolding against the sky or a spectacular sunset on the night flight to Iceland.”22

No. 20 (Deep Red and Black) (Brown, Black on Maroon) 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957
No. 20 (Deep Red and Black) (Brown, Black on Maroon) 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957

The experiences are emotional, Polcari asserts, but what emotions did Rothko believe he initiated? Such, a question presents difficulties because as David Anfam reminds us Rothko deliberately cultivated an air of mystery around his work:

“Some artists want to tell all like at a confessional. I as a craftsman prefer to tell little. My pictures are indeed façades (as they have been called) … I do this only through shrewdness. There is more power in telling little than in telling all. Two things that painting is involved with: the uniqueness and clarity of the image and how much does one have to tell.”23

Blue, Orange, Red 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961
Blue, Orange, Red 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

Rothko’s elusiveness as to his painting was always undermined however by his statements, until the summer of 1950 when he was asked to write statements for two art journals. Finally, after making his turn towards his classic format, Rothko realised the necessity of integrity and as a consequence remarked to Barnett Newman:

“I have nothing to say in words which I would stand for. I am heartily ashamed of the things I have written in the past. This self-statement business has become a fad this season.”24

Untitled (Yellow, Red and Blue) 1953 by Mark Rothko, 1953.
Untitled (Yellow, Red and Blue) 1953 by Mark Rothko, 1953.

Such an assertive declaration of intent was subsequently only overridden by his lecture at the Pratt Institute in 1958, and by memoirs of his friends with whom he conversed or corresponded. Breslin gives colour and adds weight through his illustration of this particular dilemma for Rothko.

“For Rothko, talking publicly about his art involved not just the issue of translating a visual into a verbal expression, or even the issue of explaining a visual expression that was abstract and vacant. The real issue was that Rothko’s paintings pull us back into a state of consciousness that is preverbal; they communicate through silence. Yet he wanted so intensely for them to communicate on these terms that it was hard not to discuss them, help them along in an alien world, anxiously control their reception.”25

Rather ironically, then, Rothko found himself utilising the very thing, language, which he was trying to claim was inadequate. Such an irony, of course, was known to Rothko due to his retraction of public statement making in 1950 combined with the one exception to this retraction, the 1958 Pratt Institute lecture, where he expounded upon Kierkegaard’s rendition of Abraham’s dilemma and declared “silence is so accurate.”26

833 Untitled 1970 by Mark Rothko, 1970
833 Untitled 1970 by Mark Rothko, 1970

The issue of silence, whether it is a method of ‘communication’ or ‘so accurate,’ has to be handled carefully. Silence is enigmatic. It creates a metaphysical interlude, akin to religious awe, whereby words fail in the presence of that deemed to be more highly evolved or out of the ordinary. At these moments, a gap occurs within the pattern of day-to-day life. Menial thought stops and critical interpretation is cast adrift whilst the silent air is filled with what is regarded as a metaphysical presence. The presence is only felt because of the silence.

One immediately thinks of Levinas and Blanchot and their thoughts regarding the il y a, that haunting impersonal space that has Being but without beings: existence without existents. However, I want to recall the thoughts of Silvia Benso, which we saw in the last post, where she identified touch, attention and tenderness as actions that can help bring about an ethical encounter, because I think that silence can be added.

Rothko’s realisation that silence is the aspect with which to approach his classic works, because in silence a form of non-verbal communication can be created, doesn’t have to be restricted to his works. Silence, in the sense that Rothko understands it, conjures thoughts of respect as well, as previously stated, religious awe which result in enabling the viewer to adopt an attitude of hiatus from their normal life. To be able to pause, to dwell, reflect and absorb in silence when in front of a classic work of Rothko’s, such as Orange, Red, Yellow 1961, is a transferable attitude just as much as touch, attention and tenderness. All four are approaches that can be embraced by those wishing to connect with something or someone outside of themselves.

Orange, Red, Yellow 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961
Orange, Red, Yellow 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

The big question, of course, is can we adopt such attitudes. A question around which we have been circling through all the posts so far and around which we shall continue to do so with Sartre wading in on the action, but only after we have one more look at Silvia Benso. So, hover my beautiful ethical butterflies, hover.

References

  1. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 290.
  2. Jewell, E. A., ‘Globalism’ Pops Into View, in The New York Times, 13th June 1943, 9.
  3. Gottlieb, A. and Rothko, M. quoted by Edward Alden Jewell, ‘Globalism’ Pops Into View, in The New York Times, 13th June 1943, 9.
  4. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 394-395.
  5. Ibid., 395.
  6. Rothko, M., Tiger’s Eye statement reprinted in Waldman, D., Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 85.
  7. Ashton, D., About Rothko, 100.
  8. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 247.
  9. Chave, A. C., Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, 110
  10. Polcari, S., Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, 140.
  11. Ibid., 144.
  12. Ibid., 145.
  13. Breuning, M., quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, 247.
  14. Genauer, E., quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, 355.
  15. Chave, A. C., Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, 35. (Chave herself quotes this from an apparently anonymous author, writing for Time, in an article titled ‘A Certain Spell’, 3rd March, 1961, 75).
  16. Ibid.
  17. Serota, N., Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, 10.
  18. Sandler, I. The Triumph of American Painting: A history of Abstract Expressionism, 183.
  19. Rothko, M., quoted by Dore Ashton in About Rothko, 163.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 290.
  22. Danto, A. C., The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, 338-339.
  23. Rothko, M., quoted by David Anfam in Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, 75.
  24. Rothko, M., quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, 241.
  25. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 307.
  26. Rothko, M., quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, 392.

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