THE PORTRAIT OF AN IDEA
Dr. David Anfam
Among the deepest paradoxes of Mark Rothko's art is the continuity of its themes in contrast to the vast changes that their pictorial formulation underwent during a career which spanned almost half of the twentieth century. More than time alone separates Rothko's early output from the signature idiom that he reached in 1950 and upheld until his death two decades later. In the former Rothko style, we find him sometimes hesitant, experimental or crude in his loose handling, laborious draftsmanship and obvious influences; in the latter style he crafts color and composition with consummate skill into provocatively imageless icons. Yet bridging these two extremes -- uneasy questing and rapt fulfillment, raw figuration and refined abstraction -- was Rothko's constant desire to invest his images with the force of human feelings. As he stated, "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions -- tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on" (M. Rothko, quoted in Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 119). Rothko always wanted his art to convey the kind of meanings and moods we read in a figure or face.
Nevertheless, by the late 1930s Rothko together with other members of the movement that would become known as Abstract Expressionism, became increasly aware that representation could no longer suffice. Recalling this dilemma, Rothko explained in 1958: "I belong to a generation that was preoccupied with the human figure. It was with the most [sic] 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" (M. Rothko quoted in ibid. p. 126).
In a sense, to "express the world" Rothko had to renounce it. The new realm he explored from 1950 onwards was haunted by what it had left behind. The visual silence that hovers over Rothko's mature compositional format -- one or more rectangular motifs floating within or upon a chromatic field -- paradoxically aimed for the utmost eloquence. As the late 19th Century critic Walter Pater famously declared "all art aspires to the condition of music," so Rothko wished his paintings to have a poignancy comparable to what he found in the music of his beloved Mozart. For Rothko, this pathos was inseparable from an undertow of loss: the figure's demise and its replacement with great, but apparently blank, measures of radiant hue.
In Rothko's classic compositions, exemplified by No.15, 1952, we can discern hints of a representational past for which these refulgent effects yearn, even as their mute, façade-like demeanor effaces it. For example, scholars often make obvious comparisons with landscape imagery and especially its foremost exponent in the Romantic era, J.M.W. Turner. However, we must treat this analogy with distinct caution.
Certainly, upon visiting the exhibition devoted to late Turner at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966, Rothko quipped, "That chap Turner learned a lot from me!" (M. Rothko, quoted in J. Breslin, Mark Rothko, New York, 1993, p. 666). On the other hand, Rothko's pictorial stagecraft gelled long before he ever studied Turner or, still more improbably, the German landscapist Caspar David Friedrich; he had no love for the land or countryside; and he was a highly urban soul rather than a Thoreau-like nature worshipper. Indeed, when asked whether the scenery of Oregon where he spent his childhood had somehow influenced his outlook, Rothko retorted, "Absolutely not; there is no landscape in my work" (M. Rothko, quoted in E. Carmean Jr., American Art at Mid-Century, Washington D.C., 1978, p. 269).
So how might such works as No.15 and, say, Turner's late color sketches, evince some affinity? Perhaps an answer lies in the way Turner gives us the distinct impression that emotion has gravitated from whatever dramatic props and events had once enacted it -- his figures and various historical sagas -- to the ambience itself. Simply put, it is as if both Turner and Rothko followed William Wordsworth's dictum that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility; the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind" (W. Wordsworth, Complete Poetical Works, Oxford, 1904, p. 740). The emotive afterglow that suffuses Turner and Rothko's mature atmospheres is akin to Wordsworth's notion of strong feelings reshaped by tranquil thought. No wonder Rothko was given to long contemplation of his canvases at twilight, desiring an immediate empathy or "transaction" between them and the viewer.
Such "transactions" between the image and the beholder had long preoccupied Rothko. We can see this in various early compositions, none more telling than a small panel from the late 1930s, Thru the Window. By combining a fanciful self-portrait, a female model (seen as though dwarfed in the mind's eye) and a canvas on an easel, Rothko stresses the intimate relation between objective representation and inward vision. More important, however, the diminutive picture-within-a-picture at lower right offers an extraordinary presentiment of Rothko's future. He has left this canvas blank except for its intense redness, replacing the figure's absence with its presence.
In the brilliant zenith that Rothko finally attained during the first half of the 1950s, absence and presence are writ large, with a boldness that barely seems to come from the same hand that limned the small scenario of Thru the Window. Thus, in No.15 everything that once peopled Rothko's universe -- figures, interiors, Surrealist-tinged personages, aquatic organisms, the amorphous shapes of his so-called "multiforms" of the late 1940s, and so forth -- are gone. We are left to confront only the "shimmer" (Rothko's own word) of reds and yellows set against mute frontality as they levitate, blur, dissolve and reform in a blaze of almost audible chromatic sonority.
What had changed Rothko between the period of Thru the Window and the 1950s? His sources and influences then were many, ranging from Matisse to Mondrian, from Judaism and Bonnard to the cinema. One particular precedent, though, remains indisputable. It is in Edward Hopper's art and such paintings as his Railroad Sunset (1929) that we, the spectators, take the place of the absent human figure within the scene. There, too, an impossibly lush luminosity of crimson and chrome yellow contends against the horizontal and vertical design. And the artist (Hopper) who has prompted myriad commentators to remark upon his visual silences, makes a good match with another -- Rothko -- who avowed that "silence is so accurate" (M. Rothko, quoted in E. de Kooning, "Two Americans in Action," Art News Annual, 1958, p. 174).
The connection between Hopper and Rothko runs still deeper. The older artist insisted in various ways throughout his life that the "idea" lay at the heart of his imagination: "You can't project your mind onto the canvas because there are concrete things that interfere, technical things. It's decaying from your original idea" (E. Hopper, quoted in B. O'Doherty, American Masters, New York, 1973, p. 22). Rothko's attitude invited similar terms of reference, as he sought to project inward states upon canvas's materiality.
When Rothko claimed in 1943 that "all of art is the portrait of an idea" (Writings on Art, p. 38), he presaged his singular abstract goal. The hallmark idiom that No.15 embodies can easily tend to obscure how different in technique, touch and syntax individual works are. In fact, their diversity is acute. Overall, Rothko's four hundred or so mature canvases encompass every color of the spectrum (and also many in-between nuances); pigment ranges from high glossiness to extreme matteness; surfaces vary from an almost immaterial thinness to others built of multiple layers; and edges explore every conceivable possibility, from precision-honed sharpness to near-invisible transitions.
In No.15 the two largest masses are subtly differentiated (the uppermost red denser compared to the lighter wet-in-wet brushwork of the lower one), the palest lilac gray flits both beneath and above the median band, lending it a cooler cast, the apparent symmetry belies the slight downward tilt of the lower scarlet field, a drift which the upward strokes along the right edge of this same form counterbalance (as does the slightly greater weight of white emerging from the painterly mustard stretch below), and the finest speckles and splatters intrude upon the enveloping yellow -- marks that appear made, as it were, accidently on purpose, and thereby humanize its otherwise insentient uniformity. Behind all these twists, turns and variations we may intuit a complexity reminiscent of the play of ideas in the human mind itself. This is one reason why such a painting is indeed the ultimate "portrait of an idea". Another is that Rothko's abstract images all have a family resemblance. But, again like human faces, no two are the same.
Dr. David Anfam
I am grateful to David Blaney Brown and Ian Warrell of Tate Britain for their help with my research for this essay.