Pictures that defy walls

Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas - Mark Rothko
November 20, 1998

Tom Rosenthal looks hard, closes his eyes and experiences the Rothko effect

The progression of a painter's work .... will be towards clarity; towards the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer."

Thus said Mark Rothko in Tiger's Eye in 1949, some 12 years before the British art-going public had its first substantial exposure to his work in the 1961 Whitechapel Gallery retrospective. I remember the exhibition well. Its effects were shocking, moving and resonated for whole minutes, then for hours, then days and finally came the realisation that one could never forget that first stunning impact.

I remember asking the Australian figurative painter Arthur Boyd what he had thought of the show. His response has also stayed with me. "It's what happens when you're looking hard at the pictures and then close your eyes that really matters.'' I went back and Boyd was, as in most aesthetic matters, absolutely right. There is perhaps only one comparable artist, the intensely rigorous, geometrical child of the Bauhaus, Joseph Albers, whose more rigidly abstract, angular forms and quite scientifically worked out superimposition of mostly square shapes of one colour on another are superficially operating in the same world as Rothko's masterpieces.

Every time I see an Albers, I admire its skill and its juxtapositions of colour, but he offers no sensual charge and no explosions go off behind one's closed eyelids. But with Rothko whether in bulk or with a single painting in a minor American museum, Boyd's test never fails; one needs no psychedelic drugs to have a mind-expanding experience.

Boyd was not alone in his acute perceptions of Rothko. Bryan Robertson, in Modern Painters, contributes a brilliant critique of Rothko, together with his reminiscences of the seminal Whitechapel show he had himself curated:

"Artists of all generations spent hours at the show, day after day. Henry Moore made two very long private visits in rapt contemplation of the paintings when the gallery was closed to the public; so did Kenneth Clark on three separate occasions. Both these men were greatly moved; Clark surprisingly so, perhaps, since for all his genuine and lifelong love of Mondrian - notably the Pier and Ocean plus/minus sequence of paintings - he had come to believe, mistakenly in my view, that totally abstract art could not really advance or develop and tended to end up as a form of decoration, a theme that he explored in his lecture on 'Iconophobia'.'' Marcus Rothkowitz was born in Dvinsk, Russia, in 1903 and went with his family to America in 1913. He became Mark Rothko only in 1940. He studied, without graduating, at Yale and became an effective, competent, somewhat expressionistic painter in whom one could readily detect both the Russian and the Jewish aspects of his heritage. Perhaps the two most dominant influences are the unacknowledged Chaim Soutine and the fully acknowledged, and admired, Giorgio de Chirico, of whose sparsely populated city squares Rothko made his own variants. It is not just because he was a Russian and worked briefly for the Work Projects Administration in the Depression, that one sees more than a touch of the social realist in him, his style and his subject matter: washerwomen, subway platforms and entrances, large waiting rooms, groups of musicians. There is here none of the polish, the assurance and the certainty of someone like Edward Hopper. In the early 1940s there was a kind of interim period, heavily influenced by Jung, in which he painted non-abstract images of archaic symbols representing the collective unconscious.

Had he stopped there he would have been remembered as a strong, muscular artist in whose pictures were many human figures, but little tenderness. Even the female nudes were direct but not, on the whole, enticing. A decent, second-division artist, who would have figured, without perhaps much enthusiasm, in all the histories of the period.

But, in about 1949, in Joseph Heller's memorable phrase, something happened. If, according to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse was invented in 1963, then, in 1949, Rothko in America invented a new way of seeing; a new way of looking at colour and form; a method of using something ostensibly physical and based on the placing of rectangles on other rectangles, to express emotions; to commune with an all-seeing, non-denominational God; to summon the numinous. And if that sounds like Pseuds Corner, I can only riposte by prescribing even a brief exposure to his later work and a study of these two remarkable books.

The book edited by Jeffrey Weiss, with useful essays and interviews by divers hands and an excellent chronology by Jessica Stewart, is the catalogue of the vast retrospective at, first, the National Gallery in Washington, now the Whitney in New York and bound for Paris from January 8 to April 18 next year. It is a model of its kind in that it does not load down each plate with essay-length notes when these would clearly be supererogatory. The plates speak for themselves and the quality of the colour printing and paper are both exceptional (as they also are in David Anfam's catalogue raisonne), so that for all the almost grotesque reduction in scale - most of the paintings are six, eight or even ten feet high - we come as close as it is ever possible to being able to assess a work of art by looking at a reproduction. Anfam's book has, with the odd exception where a painting has been lost or destroyed, every one in colour, more than 800 in all. It is an extraordinary exemplar of Andre Malraux's phrase, the "museum without walls". Because of their vast size, Rothko's canvases are among the few significant works of 20th-century art that would look good in the huge caverns of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but even that behemoth of a gallery could not accommodate, as the book does, some 834 canvases.

In his later years, not unlike many other artists of our time, Rothko was deeply unhappy. Smoking and drinking too much, his health collapsed and he was also deeply depressed. On the day in February 1970 when he had scheduled a meeting with his dealer at Marlborough Fine Art in New York, he killed himself. His death was followed by one of the most spectacular and unedifying law suits the art world has ever seen. In the end, the New York Surrogate Court found for his family versus the leeches who had tried to get control, above all financial control, of the estate. As a result of the family's victory, by late 1986, the Rothko Foundation had distributed paintings on, in all senses, a grand scale, to some 35 different museums with 295 major works and 662 study works to the Washington National Gallery.

Rothko, who had endured grinding and shaming poverty, including the need to act as a salesman for jewellery made by his first wife, would have been happy. Not a man to compromise, he cancelled a rich contract to provide murals for the Seagram Building in New York. After he was taken to dinner at the proposed site, the unbelievably opulent and, in my view, deeply pretentious, restaurant called The Four Seasons, Rothko handed his fee back and, after deft diplomacy by the then director, Sir Norman Reid, the Seagram paintings were given to the Tate, where a special room was created for them.

Rothko was someone who thought deeply about his art and was formidably articulate about it both in speech and writing. In a 1954 letter he wrote: "Since my pictures are large, colourful and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and they are the opposite of what is decorative; and have been painted in a scale of normal living rather than an institutional scale. I have on this occasion successfully dealt with this problem by tending to crowd the show rather than making it spare. By saturating the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated and the poignancy of each single work .... become(s) more visible."

That word poignancy is telling. In the dryness, even in the occasional leaden clumsiness of much of his early work, his emotional impact was deliberately or at least subconsciously, stifled and held back. It was as if the freedom from the need to paint people, places and things, enabled him to cut loose; to lose his inhibitions about form and colour in the newfound freedom of abstraction.

In an interview in 1957 he said: "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom .... and if you .... are moved only by their colour relationship, then you miss the point. " This is all of a piece with Anfam's shrewd analogy with Plato and the allegory of the cave in The Republic. Human beings are caught in a "dialectic of extremes'', and Rothko's work is undoubtedly both human and extreme. Plato's humans are prisoners in the cave. All they can see are "the shadows cast on a wall by the glow of a fire''. In his masterly, brief analysis, Anfam also quotes a poem by the artist: The feel of the cave - the cave.

From a cave they looked out on the world, And struggled to understand, And slowly the flicker of their intelligence Grew and consumed the dusk with their mind.

Anfam has observed that "we blink and then the painting, as it were, returns - the same but different''. (Shades of Boyd ...) "As the ideal of coaxing the spectator's complicity with the function of a work of art had developed during the Renaissance, so Rothko finally leads it to a point of no return."

As one contemplates Rothko's paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, one cannot but reflect on Constantin Brancusi's great maxim: "Simplicity is at bottom complexity." Brancusi, another key figure in the art of our century, surely knew whereof he spoke. His words could be, perhaps should be, both epigraph and epitaph for Rothko's genius.

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné

Author - David Anfam
ISBN - 0 300 07489 1
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 708

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