01-11-2007 - Traces, n. 10

Mark Rothko

Behind the Color Lies a

A journey through the work of an artist who aimed at “the reality of things,” living an intense life that ended in tragedy

by Cristina Terzaghi

“Dear Rothko: …In these paintings that seem made of nothing, of color alone, I discover something new, I discover everything that lies behind the paint, giving it meaning, drama–poetry, in short. They are marvelous, these paintings, Mr. Rothko. Moreover, it’s now clear this is the maximum painting can achieve today.” Today, meaning May 27, 1962, after visiting Mark Rothko’s solo exhibition in Rome for the fourth time, the great film director Michelangelo Antonioni, just back from Cannes where he had presented The Eclipse, wrote to the painter, by this time world famous. The letter, published for the first time at the anthological exhibition which, after almost half a century, Rome is devoting to Rothko, in the stunning setting of the renewed Palazzo delle Esposizioni, is a valuable key to the interpretation of the artist’s poetic. Antonioni’s impression still seems as relevant as ever.

Immediate correspondence
It’s rare for viewers not to turn with relief to what they can recognize. With Rothko, you do it: a room of his work, like at the museum in London or at the exhibit now in Rome, is so captivating, ablaze with yellow, red and gold, filled with joie de vivre, the desire for beauty. There is nothing alien about it. We feel we are inside the canvas, inside the life conveyed by those paintings; the correspondence is immediate. So what lies behind that color?
“I’m not an abstractionist,” Rothko repeated all his life, and, looking back, there is good reason to believe him.
He was born Marcus Rothkowitz, a Russian Jew whose family emigrated to America in 1913, when he was just ten years old. In 1933, he held his first solo exhibition in New York. He was electrified by the life of the metropolis. His interest was fixed on human figures, represented in everyday contexts. This led to the Street Scenes and the various versions of his subway scenes and street pictures (see right). Precisely this concern for mankind seems to have confronted the artist with urgent questions about the destiny of the person and, above all, about reality. In the forties, Rothko devoted himself almost wholly to the representation of myth and the different religious expressions, including frequent depictions of the Crucifixion (see p. 36).

Between Pollock
and Congdon

As he took this path, it would have been easy for the artist to turn to Surrealism, the movement that in those years was making the biggest effort to represent the unconscious and the inner life. But for Rothko, reality was stronger than anything else. In 1945 he wrote, “I accept the reality of things and their substance. I accept the reality of things and their concreteness…. I set too much store by both the object and the dream to let them fizzle away in the disembodiment of memory and hallucination.” This was the period when Rothko was working side by side with Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Barnett Newman, in the fervent and vital climate of the “New York School” (which included the young William Congdon). Rothko gradually conquered the surface of the painting, developing a very personal use of color, first laid on as touches of pigment, through the technique of the gouache on paper, then with oil (acrylics were not available in those years), and finally creating his Multiforms, works in which the painter gives life to the space through the use of horizontal rectangles of different colors. (see the example on p. 37).
At the same time, as he was exploring spatial creation by means of color, Rothko began to work in large formats, which he continued to do all his life, all the way to his Murals of the late sixties. Perhaps as a result of the existential disquiet of his later years, he almost completely abandoned color for black (see top right on p. 36) and dark or dull tones. “I paint big pictures of large dimensions; I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however, is that I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to put yourself outside your experience, is to look upon experience with a stereopticon view or with a looking glass. However you paint the large picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”
The painter paid dearly for his urge. In the summer of 1968, because of his physical state, the doctors forbade him to paint canvases more than a yard high. Rothko refused this advice and began the large series of Black on Gray Paintings, his dark canvases (see top right on p. 36). Early in 1969, he left his second wife, Mell. Now seriously ill, he took his own life in his studio on February 25, 1970. A mystery to all.