'I hate and distrust all art historians, experts and critics. They are a bunch of parasites, feeding on the body of art. Their work is not only useless, it is misleading...A painting doesn't need anybody to explain what it's about. If it's any good, it speaks for itself, and a critic who tries to add to that statement is presumptuous.' (Mark Rothko cited in John Fischer, 'The Easy Chair: Mark Rothko, Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Man', 1970 reproduced in M Lopez-Ramiro (ed.) Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven 2005, p. 133)
Like many pioneering abstract artists of the 20th Century, Mark Rothko was fearful of the apparent simplicity of his art. He was concerned that its non-objectivity could be misunderstood as vacancy or emptiness and that the rich sombre tones of his colour and the sober dialogue between his forms might be dismissed as mere decorative colourism. As a result, he was scornful of most commentary on his work and, in his own writings and statements about his painting, often tended to overcompensate for this simplicity by stressing the psychological complexity and ancient mythical intensity brought to and invoked by his work. According to him, his paintings were epic 'dramas' involved with the entire 'scale of human feeling', sober monuments expressive of 'tragedy, ecstasy and doom'.
Rooted in his own strongly psychological reading habits and in the deep sense of redemption that he and his generation wanted to give to the world in the aftermath of the Second World War, Rothko wanted to create an art that invoked a universal and timeless language - one that spoke directly to and about a collective humanity - in a new age of existential uncertainty. In this respect, it is perhaps only Rothko's works, of all the paintings of the New York School, that really succeed. For, more than the paintings of Pollock, Newman or de Kooning for instance, it is Rothko's works, that are most often understood and appreciated by people with little or no experience of art. While for Rothko himself, his paintings were expressive of the ancient plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the music of Mozart (to whom he listened while he painted) the tragedies of Shakespeare and the philosophical landscape of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, their 'real genius' as the painter Robert Motherwell pointed out, was that they expressed and articulated a universal 'language of feeling' using only colour.
Inspired by the example of Matisse, who, being a European artist, Rothko was always very keen to distinguish himself from, the Russian-born painter 'heroified' colour making it the sole protagonist of his abstract 'dramas'. Declaring that 'the familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment' (Mark Rothko in 'The Romantics were Prompted' published in Possibilities, no. 1, Winter 1947/48). Rothko found a way to create an art of deep spiritual intensity by asserting colour as its own entity. By abandoning all objects and every element or thing that could distract, divert or get in the way of the viewer's meditative experience of his paintings, Rothko established colour as a real physical presence. Filling the visual space of the viewer with a radiant energy born from the artist's careful brushwork and the feathered edges of his rectangular coloured fields, Rothko's powerful horizontals define themselves against the vertical living presence of the viewer. His horizon-like bands and fields of colour envelop the viewer's frame of vision and in doing so appear to permeate through the body, seemingly bypassing vision, to prompt an emotional response that is both immediate and undeniable. It is in this way that Rothko paintings seem to be felt rather than seen and the somewhat surprising effect of this can, on occasion, be overwhelming.
One of the last of the great Romantics of modernism - a man about whom, Dore Ashton once wrote, 'what is wonderful about Mark is that he aspires, and is still capable of believing that his work can have some purpose - spiritual if you like - that is not sullied by the world,' Rothko was an artist who clearly yearned for the sublime. (Dore Ashton, Journal, 7 July 1964.) And, it is through this innate sense of the sublime, which everyone at sometime experiences, that his paintings attempt to communicate - through the abstract, the collective, anonymous uncertainty and apparent vastness of void. Above all, it is through the inherent mysticism of the horizon-line - that sacred place where two or more contrasting elements (earth, air, water,) meet and resonate in the eye and consciousness of the viewer - that Rothko's paintings speak. As Robert Rosenblum once famously pointed out, a Rothko painting is Caspar David Friedrich's Monk by the Sea but without the wandering monk, who is in effect, replaced by the viewer.
In this context, Black, White, Blue is an impressive and mysterious work that, with its white, shimmering cloud-like rectangle hovering in contrast to another of deeply radiant blue over a stark black background, clearly illustrates Rosenblum's point. Painted circa 1963 and one of a rare group of paintings made on paper from this period, this bleak but sensuous painting explores the extremes of Rothko's deceptively simple aesthetic and expresses it with a similar sobriety to Friedrich's famous painting.
With its brilliant white cloud-like rectangle and its gentle feathered edges of paint, 'breathed', as Rothko once said, over the impenetrable black void of the background, this painting has the startling luminosity of a moment of apparition or revelation. Balanced subtly by another more sombre but radiant rectangle above it, the cloud-like mystery of the white rectangle is anchored within the space of the picture in a way that enhances its strange and almost mystical radiance. Establishing a formal and tonal dialogue at the heart of the work, this painting not only displays the full sophistication and subtlety of Rothko's brushwork, but also the extraordinarily emotive and elemental power of pure simple colour.
For Rothko, these shapes in his pictures were 'the performers'. They have been created from what he described as 'the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.' (Mark Rothko 'The Romantics were Prompted' published in Possibilities No. 1 Winter 1947/8)