Tag Archives: mark rothko

The Rothko Story

Let me tell you a tale. A tale of the depth of emotion that art can evoke. A tale that will make you pause. A tale I hope will demonstrate why art history is valuable.

As trite as it sounds, I have a favorite artist, Mark Rothko. And, speaking of trite, I was looking at a You Tube compilation of his work today. At the end were comments, lots of comments. I started to read a few but got hung up on the first one. A comment so glaring for demonstrating the author’s complete lack of understanding of the history behind the art that it catapulted me here to write.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was an intelligent and philosophically inclined man who won a scholarship to Yale but left New Haven after two years to join the Manhattan art scene (he was later awarded a degree from Yale). There he began his art education with classes in representational drawing and painting. Ultimately however, he became known for abstract painting and would be placed in the group of artists working in the 1950’s called the Abstract Expressionists. Rothko filled huge canvases with large blocks of vibrant colors.

I paint very large pictures because I want to create a state of intimacy. A large picture is an immediate transaction. It takes you into it.

His technique was novel and refined; he painstakingly applied series of layers of thin washes of colors that added up to creating a luminescence and a remarkable shimmering effect.

Rothko disliked giving up these masterpieces of scale and light and color.

It’s a risky business to send a picture out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who could extend their affliction universally!

In an attempt to control the fate of his canvases he became famous for exerting control over how they were displayed. They were to be hung so that there was little white wall surrounding them; preferably in a room with only other paintings of his. The paintings were to be hung as low as possible and in quite dim light. He meant the paintings to be  ideally viewed at a distance of only 18 inches so that the (single) viewer would be enveloped by the experience as Rothko had been enveloped while painting them (he wanted to create a feeling that the painting was not static but, continuing to evolve as it was viewed). And, he intended the viewer to have quite the experience. In his fabulous book The Power of Art, Simon Schama says “no other painter in the history of modern art – perhaps in the entire history of painting – was so obsessed with the relationship between the artist and his audience”.  His goal was that we would be transported by his art. Once when a reviewer commented that Rothko was simply a master of color he scathingly responded:

I am not an abstractionist. … I am not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. … I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!

In 1958 Rothko was offered an enormous (for the day) retaining fee to produce a set of murals to hang on the walls of the new Four Seasons restaurant in the building designed by architect Mies van de Rohe and owned by the Seagram’s distilling company.  He then rented an old gymnasium and erected scaffolding to model the space at the Four Seasons and began working. In a short time there were dozens of canvases of red, maroon, black, brown and flaming orange. From these he planned to choose the best nine to completely cover the walls all around the main dining. They would thus become more like murals, than individual paintings.

Rothko’s works became sought after, his income soared to 60,000 in 1959 and yet, he mistrusted the wealth that bought his work. Simon Schama explained that Rothko’s fear was having the paintings become “overmantels” or expensive wallpaper for the rich. Perhaps it was this fear that motivated Rothko to go with his wife to the newly completed Four Seasons restaurant one night in the summer of 1959. There they dined amongst the glittering decor, clinking glasses and stylish Manhattanites. There it suddenly be came clear to Rothko that his murals were not meant to hang on those rarefied walls. He felt, likely rightly so, that the diners would not understand his work let alone have the sort of emotional experience he intended for a viewer to have. He turned down the money – approximately $2 million.

Anyone who would eat that kind of food for that kind of money will never look at a painting of mine.

Then followed years of struggle with alcohol and creation of paintings of an progressively dark palette. These  somber paintings seem to represent a final step down into a darkening of spirit. His health failed, his marriage failed and he continued to drink and smoke. He became increasingly depressed.

On February 25th, 1970 Mark Rothko was found dead in his studio, his wrists slit. Hours later on the very same day, a shipment of nine Seagram murals arrived at the Tate Gallery in London to be hung in a room alone according to strict specifications.  Jonathon Jones wrote in a recent blog post for the Guardian that “Rothko was fascinated by the idea of shaping a room with art, using abstract painting as a type of architecture”. He meant to create a physical space where his canvases could work with the surrounding architecture to move viewers to meditate. He meant to induce a religious experience. Upon his death he had created just this.

For dear reader, now that you have heard this tale, you can see that art history is powerful. That an understanding of the history of a work of art can create a heightened appreciation of it. To the uneducated You Tube viewer, Rothko’s paintings may look easy (they are not – remember the groundbreaking layering of pigment he developed and the precision with which he displayed them). To the uninformed viewer they may appear an attempt to generate exorbitant sums of money (they were not– remember his mistrust of wealth and that his constant desire to have the viewer emotionally connected led him to turn down $2 million). So, the moral of this story might be that one should ask about art before you judge. And then with your knowledge, enjoy.

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This is a powerful tale and by telling it to your children over dinner and showing them some of Rothko’s art (try the youtube compilation) you will begin to hook them on the world of art. You may worry about telling them about Rothko’s suicide but then, you could view this part of the tale as a “teachable moment”. It presents to you an open door to start further dinner discussions about depression, addiction and suicide. These are all parts of the world experience that we hope our children avoid. You have a powerful ability to influence their choices if you are willing to discuss these difficult topics. It has been sown that children whose parents frequently talk with them and clearly convey their expectations regarding drug and alcohol use are much less likely to end up abusing substances. Feel your power and start talking. To help here are a few resources.

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Gifts of Transcendence

I have wonderful friends. Ones who support me and understand me. So, when they heard I was injured and stuck lying around; off my leg for weeks to come, two of the most insightful ones brought me a gift of art. Both went to museums and came back to me with Rothkos. One with a beautiful print and, one with a powerfully written tale of his trip to see a Rothko in my honor. They understand me well.

Some works of art have the ability to transport us emotionally to another plane of experience. Certainly music will do this for most of us. Think of the elevating power of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the Ode to Joy or listen to Pachelbel’s canon. Visual arts too have this power. The Shiva Linga paintings that I discussed in an earlier post are a clear and direct example of this. They were painted as devotional images intended for use during meditation to help the believer focus their prayers. The paintings depict one of the forms of the Hindu god Shiva, the god of destruction and transformation. He  oversees death and rebirth. These paintings therefore are meant to represent transitional space between creation and dissolution.

Despite my not being Hindu or particularly meditative, I found these paintings absolutely compelling. They are simple and repetitive; painted on found scraps of paper by individual, anonymous practitioners. Similar yet interesting in their differences.  As I stared into their central black ovals I felt the world around melting away from behind me while the black space grew to envelope my thoughts.

I have to wonder if Mark Rothko perhaps saw and was influenced by similar paintings. There are parallels to be found in his work: the spare design, simple color blocks and, the intended purpose of transcendence. Rothko meant for us, the viewers stand close to and alone in front of his paintings. He meant for us to be embraced by them. A sensuous, tragic, moving embrace. So now I in possession of my own Rothko’s, feel able to extend beyond the limits of my own experience. I am momentarily lifted beyond the couch and into the enfolding spell that art can provide.         ©

Minimalist Art Provoking Maximum Discussion

An article by Carol Vogel in yesterday’s New York Times brings me to focus here on item number one in The List. The article was a review of Glenn Ligon’s upcoming retrospective at the Whitney museum in NYC. Glenn Ligon is a modern painter and conceptual artist whose work focuses on his view and exploration of American history. There is much here to use as fodder for a dinnertime discussion with your kids.

First a bit of art history to set the stage with. His work seems to fall well into the broad category of Conceptual Art. This movement followed Abstract Expressionism (think Rothko and Pollock) and Pop Art (think Warhol). Ligon’s work seems heavily influenced by a Neo-Dadaist artist: Jasper Johns (think American flags and numbers), …and if all this is making your head spin either skip on through or, see the bottom of this post for examples of work by these artists. Conceptual Art is a cool ah, concept to talk with your kids about. It very simply put, is art that focuses on ideas rather than aesthetics. The Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp was amongst those setting the stage for conceptual art by leading us to question what art is exactly and to stretch our expectations of what art should be.

The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker. Marcel Duchamp

Years later, Conceptual art began to look at the context and perception of words, objects and ideas. In Ligon’s work he often uses words or phrases from other people and reproduces them in ways that urge the viewer to look longer and harder at what has been said. Taking these words into a new frame or focus pushes us to contemplate their ideas as those outside our own experience bringing us possibly, to a new understanding.  As Ligon himself said:

You have to be a bit outside of something to see it

The New York Times article about his work is well titled: The Inside Story on Outsiderness. Look with your children at his art; doing so may move them towards that first item on our List: to widen their perspective and encourage cross-experience understanding. Glenn Ligon’s art is about important and challenging concepts developed in large part by his experience as an African-American gay man  and yet, is presented in ways that are approachable. Challenging but not crushing of a child’s interest. My friend described them as “minimalist art provoking maximum discussion”.

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Representative works discussed above:

Glenn Ligon "All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence" (inspired by words from The book "Black Like Me")
Jackson Pollock
Mark Rothko
Jasper Johns
Andy Warhol

Why blog re: art/health/parenting? Because Rothko makes my heart sing and mind feel calm.

Why blog about art, parenting and health? Well, I suppose, one blogs what knows. Better yet, one blogs what one is passionate about. Gee, the kids are an easy one but why the art-medicine combo? Here’s my take on that: art is good for our souls, our hearts and brains. Think of the calmness that runs through you when you look at a beautiful landscape, photograph or painting. Think of how you reflexively take a deep breath at the beginning of a beautiful piece of  music. Or how happy you feel when enjoying the artistry of a well presented meal (even better when enjoyed with some warm jazz playing in the background and good friends to laugh with). Beauty calms our souls. Not all art is beautiful; some art disturbs us and makes us think and question. This stretching of our minds also feels good in a deeply fulfilling way.

Happy minds, calm souls = health. The evidence for a mind-body connection is endless and strong. So, find your beauty, find art, be it painting, music or food, that makes your heart sing and stretch.

I have a favorite painter. Not one most people “get”. So, often those friends of mine that are subjected to chatter about art get to hear about Mark Rothko. Inevitably they are puzzled. Rothko is famous for painting large canvases covered with blurry-edged blocks of shimmering colors. They are often vibrant but, later in his life became dark. In the beginning of his career he painted more representational work; things that looked more or less like what they were. Then, as many painters do, he evolved his efforts towards abstract art. He became one of the leading figures in the New York “school” of Abstract Expressionism. In this evolution he had the expressed goal of guiding the viewer of his canvases towards an inner exploration. He intended to transcend their thoughts to a place of meditation of the most basic of human emotions. Famously, he commented that one who thought of his work simply as being studies in color had not seen

people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.

So, Mark Rothko’s work for me illustrates this connection between art and health. Viewing, listening, experiencing art as a path towards inner strength and calmness that in turn gives us increased health. A gift indeed, to give our children from a young age. And, a reason for writing about the mix of art, health and parenting.