On the Rothko Retrospective

I spent a couple days at the Rothko Retrospective in Houston, Texas, December 29-31, 2015. This temporary gallery featured 61 glorious paintings by Abstract Expressionist master, Mark Rothko. Along with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others during the mid-20th century, Rothko and the abstract expressionists were the first to shift the gaze of the art world from Paris to New York City.

A history of artists spanning millennia have attempted to capture humanity and transcendence through still-life images, but the abstract expressionists begged to break the trend. Their approach asked and still asks: how can human emotion, experiences, and spirituality be reduced to the smallest common denominator? The anguish, the melancholy, the ecstasy of life… How can strokes of pigment be assembled in a way that transforms a blank canvas into another universe the viewer could step into? It was through this stripping away of recognizable figures that the expressionists found their stride. With bold brush strokes, they exaggerated the medium of painting itself to create something extraordinary—minimalist means with maximalist results. And without a single human form replicated onto canvas. 

What was so astonishing about the Rothko Retrospective was experiencing the evolution of Rothko’s work between 1937 and 1970. His roots in cubism and surrealism eventually disintegrated into “multiforms”, unrecognizable assortments of color blots which blossomed in Rothko’s 1940s work. By the 1950s Rothko’s paintings had become irreversibly potent with both clarity and magnitude. His signature style is as revelatory and intriguing now as it was then. 

61 pictures—most of them mammoths. It’s difficult to describe such an excessive experience with Rothko. It’s the closest I’ve come to a theatrical event while encountering visual art. Right when you step into a paintings gaze, you are simply there—present with another organism. You watch it. It watches you. Omnipresent, it confronts you yet comforts you. It battles you while its color fields battle itself, suggesting some kind (or perhaps all kinds of) human duality. What makes Rothko’s works so effective is that these archaic images would have similarly condescending effects on a human regardless of place or era. The paintings reach us somewhere deep down that we’re not usually unlocking. Like the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, citizens of both the primal and the present experience the mystery of life and death.

A first glance at a Rothko on Google images will prove to be disappointing. Like theatre, his work is meant to be experienced in person. Their true size prove an iPhone viewing to be a fool's errand, but stare into a real Rothko for a minute or two and the layers emerge. Brush strokes and various hues gradually glow through one another (the more patient you are). To Rothko's credibility as a painter, the peaceful pictures are not without technical mastery.

Additionally, Rothko’s paintings are known to have borderline hallucinatory effects on viewers. This sensation is called "chromatic afterimage." Stare at one color on the canvas, and the colors adjacent to it will shift. Additionally, the rectangles' extension to the edge of the canvas have the potential to manifest a hovering effect. Despite his mastery of color, Rothko argues, ”If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.“

Rothko’s yearning for the spiritual was best satisfied with the opening of the Rothko Chapel in 1971, a year after his suicide. In the inaugural address of the opening of the chapel, Dominique De Menil said, “There is a growing awareness that God does not only speak through his appointed ministers—that he may be at work everywhere in the world. Everywhere creative people are trying to open a new door.” (I wrote briefly on the Rothko chapel here, although it deserves revision since my second visit)

Mark Rothko’s son, Christopher, wrote an essay called, “Mark Rothko: The Mastery of the 60s”. In this, he argues that the more subtle works at the end of Rothko’s career (while lacking immediate visual-emotional hook) are to be appreciated for how much they require of the viewer: “This process, which my father is proposing to you, his viewer, is ultimately his greatest gift. For he is not only insisting that you slow down and spend time with his work, he is giving you permission. He is helping you reorient your values, to spend time on things that are deeper, more meaningful, distinctly not practical, and ultimately more worthwhile.”