1. Did he even know how to draw? Or was he only able to paint stuff like fences?
All those who keep using the destructive epithet "house" painter when referring to Rothko are a bit late with that. The fact is that the artist also called himself that way. This was because he used huge canvases, and from a distance his work really resembled painting walls.
In fact, creating large-scale paintings was one of the distinguishing features of abstract expressionists, but Rothko had his own opinion on that matter: "The reason I paint them however, is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However, you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command."
Now, we get back to the matter of skills. Like other artists who became famous in the field of avant-garde movements, such as Kandinsky, Malevich or Picasso, Rothko began with quite figurative painting. You be the judge: he could create decent Cézanne-like still lifes, sketchy, almost impressionistic portraits and landscapes, and self-portraits with a touch of Munch's expressionism.
2. Millionaires have their quirks – so let them buy Rothko. After all, they don't keep his primitive daub in decent museums, do they?
Of course, Rothko's paintings are now the pride of the collections of the largest museums in the world: MoMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Tate, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, The National Gallery of Australia... There are more than 300 reproductions of Rothko's paintings in his gallery on Arthive: in the column on the right there is a list of the museums, which house them – feel free to look at it.
As for primitivity, we'll take our time to remind you again that Rothko painted like that not because he was not capable of anything else, but because he decided to do so. However, when it comes to the art of the 20th century, "primitive" is more of a compliment. You yourself probably adore Henri Rousseau and Niko Pirosmani – primitivists, whose unique figurativeness is dictated by their "limited" skills and knowledge. And you are likely to know that Mikhail Larionov, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso also made attempts to shut their mind and experience in a closet and release primitiveness onto a canvas, simulating primitivism.
Rothko also deliberately simplified his approach to creating paintings, trying to "regress to childhood." This will be described below.
3. Malevich painted his Black Square back in 1915. Are you really trying to say that there is a big difference between Malevich and Rothko?
It is what it is: black is the absolute to which all beings aspire. These are black holes with such strong gravitational attraction that even quanta – particles of light - can't resist them. It is the colour you'll get if you mix all the colours together. Sooner or later, any seeker of the maximum limit or minimum support in art, comes to black: be it Coco Chanel's little black dress or Malevich's Black Square. But the difference between the latter and Rothko’s conventional "black squares" is still there. As well as the difference in understanding the essence and meaning of art by these two artists. However, it is not so easy to see it.
"In Suprematism, painting is out of the question, painting has become obsolete, and the painter himself is a preconceived notion of the past," claimed Malevich. And Rothko's rectangles are just the quintessence of painting. But don't be hasty in taking it for a significant difference, saying that Rothko is painting in its pure form, and Malevich is not about painting at all. Absolutely about painting!
As it often happened, Malevich confused testimony, and his words and actions didn't jibe. Research, conducted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Black Square, has shown that the black colour on the canvas is not as simple as it seems. Malevich himself mixed paints in order to obtain a non-uniform, velvety colour that draws the viewers inside the painting. This is exactly about Rothko: he also worked on his paints himself and tried to drag the viewer inside his canvases.
Rothko built a chapel for his paintings (and it housed his darkest, almost black works), while at 0,10 Exhibition, where suprematism was revealed to the world, Malevich hung his Black Square in the so-called "red corner" – a place where icons were traditionally to be found. "I transformed myself in the zero of form," said Malevich. "I am not interested in the relationships of colour or form or anything else," admitted Rothko.
Thus, we can only see the similarities so far.
1.2. The Rothko Chapel. Photo: rothkochapel.org
Try to guess whom of the two artists – Rothko or Malevich – this quote belongs to:
"Painting is paint and colour; it lies within our organism. Its outbursts are great and demanding. My nervous system is coloured by them. My brain burns with their colour."
(Answer: these are his words).
And here is the difference. According to Malevich, his artistic discoveries had to have practical implications and were a matter of national, even universal importance: he taught his contemporaries to create new art, adding them to the group of artists called UNOVIS (an abbreviation for Affirmers (Champions) of the New Art), and designed architektons and planits for the inhabitants of the future. Malevich found it almost more comfortable to stand at the lectern than at the easel. He loved explaining his art and teaching others how to create their own one. Manifestos, slogans, charts, graphs, formulas, scandals – he used everything.
It was almost impossible to get any explanation from Rothko about the essence of his work. It's not that the artist didn't want to be rightly understood – he just didn't find it necessary to give explanations. American art critic and historian Irving Sandler recalls: "At his retrospective exhibition at MoMA, held in 1961, Mark often took my arm, followed the visitors and listened to their conversations – he wanted to know what they thought. And although Rothko remained firm in his conviction that painting could carry the burden of deep philosophical ideas, he was not sure that those ideas were understandable to all viewers."
In moments of excitement and inspiration, Malevich considered himself a man who would change everything – and not only in painting. Rothko's art is a deeply personal story, and his only artistic ambition was to establish contact with the viewers and create an emotional resonance with them, using his paintings.
And no mistake: darkness, hopelessness and despair, rising from the depths of the soul while contemplating Rothko's paintings of the late period (when in the late 1960s the artist plunged deeper into depression) are exactly what he wanted to convey. And if you feel that, it means that he managed to achieve his goal. And if not – print or order the reproductions of those paintings in sizes close to the original ones, and try again.
Malevich developed and depicted his supremuses to explain to everyone how painting and the universe are arranged. Creating his own chapel, Rothko wanted to achieve "only" that people would see themselves when looking at his paintings. And yes, no one had done it that way before.
4. Isn't the Rothko chapel a blasphemy?
Whether it is a blasphemy, sacrilege, or even more – an "insult to the feelings of believers" is, of course, above the paygrade of art criticism. The question "Isn't something a blasphemy?" raises a counter-question as a prerequisite for the answer: "From whose point of view?"
As far as we know, "limits of the allowed" differs for representatives of different religions. Let's start with the fact that both the Quran and the Torah contain an explicit ban on depicting the visible – that is, figurative painting: "You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Deut. 5,8). In this sense, visual arts are a very suspicious thing in general, although they eventually gained legitimacy in Christianity. Still, what is holy for some (like icons for Orthodox Christians or sculptural images of Christ and the Virgin Mary for Catholics) is a huge sacrilege for others (for example, for many Protestants). A direct violation of the second commandment.
The Rothko Chapel in Houston, with its 14 large black and purple paintings, may seem a sacrilege to some traditionalists: "Giotto depicted Christ and the Last Judgement in the Scrovegni chapel, while your Rothko painted some kind of black holes, what an atheist! Are we supposed to pray to black holes and worship them, or what?" However, paintings similar to those of Rothko don't violate the second commandment. Rothko's paintings in his chapel in Houston induce a prayerful attention focusing and meditation. If that's what people are looking for in the chapel, they find it.
And for those looking for blasphemy and wounding their religious feelings almost everywhere (they really remind us of Dostoevsky's typical characters, who take pleasure in being offended), we would like to quote Paul the Apostle: "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked" (Gal. 6,7).
Before inventing his own style and moving on to colour field painting, Rothko was interested in religious subjects – and one can still find traces of figurativeness in his early paintings on that subject.
5. Okay, how do Rothko's masterpieces differ from my five-year-old nephew's drawings?
This comparison is not that far from the truth. The artist consciously tried to imitate the children's approach to creating a picture, not being bound by academic dogmas.
Rothko compared the principles of modernist painting with the way kids express themselves in the process of drawing, and found that it was necessary to begin working on a painting with colour. Just as a child, sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper, does not make an initial sketch, but first chooses the paint, which they like the most at that moment.
Toward the end of his life, Rothko withdrew into himself more and more and was less happy about the visitors in the studio where he lived. However, his little daughter Kate never failed to bring her father in a good mood, appearing in the same studio. Her genuine childlike perception of paintings was for the artist almost more important than the opinion of authoritative critics.
We assume that you are more interested in why millions of dollars are not paid at auctions for your nephew’s drawings and the curators of the world's leading art galleries don't fight for them. Firstly, they have not seen them yet, have they? Who knows, maybe you've got a future Jackson Pollock growing up.
Secondly, you still need to take into account the factor of time and novelty: the emergence of colour field painting of Barnett Newman and Rothko in the middle of the last century is one thing, but Willem de Kooning-like "daub" in this day and age is quite another. Your nephew will have to make a huge effort to surprise someone with abstract outburst nowadays. Everything has already been invented.
Although Rothko was not a Christian, he adhered to a gospel principle "become like little children" in painting.
6. Who even called Rothko an artist, especially a great one?!
In fact, there's an official court order on that matter. Indeed, an unprecedented case: the American court really recognized Mark Rothko as a great artist. It happened as a result of a years-long litigation process in the case of the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery, whose representatives, using the artist’s naivety in financial matters, bought several hundred of Rothko's paintings for almost nothing.
Having estimated the brilliant investment prospects of Rothko's creative legacy, the Marlborough Gallery, together with Bernard Reis, the artist's close friend whom he trusted, persuaded Mark to sign a fraudulent contract. So, having paid $ 12,000 for a painting, the Duke of Marlborough and his partner Lloyd could sell it for $ 200,000 literally the next morning. Moreover, the foundation got exclusive rights to dispose of Rothko's artistic property after his death.
The artist's children, Christopher and Kate, sued the dishonest dealers to return their father's legacy. As many as four pages of the final verdict in the Rothko case are dedicated to the importance of his work in the history of painting. Judge Midonick concluded that "all the experts who appeared at the trial were in agreement that Rothko was a great master."
According to the verdict of the court, the cost of the paintings indicated in the contract with the Marlboro Gallery did not correspond to their actual artistic value. Therefore, the contract was cancelled, and more than 600 of Rothko's paintings were returned to his children. Kate and Christopher donated many of them to museums and galleries around the world.
William Rubin, a curator at The Museum of Modern Art located in New York City, noted: "Rothko contrasts two shades of red in a way that you begin clattering with your teeth, just looking at the painting."
7. Who even started this Rothko-trend and where do these outrageous prices on his paintings come from?
In the early 1950s, Fortune magazine called Rothko's paintings a profitable investment, which was bound to affect the price of his works. But it also caused envy of his brothers in trade – Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still – who began to say that he "sold himself." The latter even wrote Rothko to return the paintings that Clyfford had given Mark years earlier.
The artist was plunged into despair by his former friends' striking changes in the attitude towards him. This was doubly insulting, given that the surge in demand for Rothko's paintings automatically led to price increases for the works of all artists who were close to him. In less than no time, everyone wanted to acquire canvases of abstractionists who rapidly came into fashion.
In 1954, Rothko exhibited in a solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago. There, destiny brought the artist together with a famous collector and art dealer Sidney Janis, who represented the interests of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and had a significant impact on the popularization of abstract expressionism in general.
Their relationship became beneficial for both parties. Rothko's fame and financial well-being grew at an exponential rate, and his paintings became a target for famous collectors, including the Rockefeller dynasty.
In January 1961, the artist got an honourable place next to Joseph Kennedy at the ball on the occasion of the inauguration of his younger brother. In the same year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York housed a retrospective exhibition of paintings by Mark Rothko, which was met with great enthusiasm by both art critics and collectors of contemporary art. All this together had a significant impact on price rises.
Mark Rothko's painting No.1 (Royal Red and Blue) was sold at Sotheby’s for $75.1 million in November 2012. In 2012, the painting Orange, Red, Yellow was sold for $86.8 million and became the most expensive work of modern art at that time. In 2014, the painting No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red) was sold at private sale for more than $140 million, Dmitry Rybolovlev was named the buyer.
8. But most of his paintings don't even have titles, see here? Isn't this evidence that their meaning is nowhere to be found?
To begin with, we owe the existence of the titles of many recognized masterpieces by great artists to the efforts of art historians. They had to somehow refer to the mentioned paintings in scientific research and catalogues, because the artists of the past did not always bother to come up with the titles for their works. For example, Hieronymus Bosch didn't leave us a single title of his works.
As for Mark Rothko, his refusal to assign some meaning to his paintings by inventing thoughtful titles was deliberate. He pursued the goal of not influencing the viewers’ thoughts on their content. The artist wanted the public to comprehend the essence of the works without his intervention or any hints.
This is quite a common strategy among abstractionists, and not Rothko's fraudulent move or an attempt to obscure the issue. Here's what Kandinsky said in this regard: "It would be better, perhaps, if instead of 'dark green' I wrote, for example, 'space forces' or instead of 'several circles' — 'circles in infinity'! My titles give the impression that my paintings are somewhat insignificant and boring. But too pretentious titles sicken me. In general, I think the titles are the necessary evil, since they, as well as the subject, always limit rather than expand."
"The simple expression of the complex thought" – is a description Rothko himself came up with for his paintings.
For the same reason, Rothko didn't publish his treatise The Artist's Reality, written in the early 1940s (it was published only in the early 2000s). Here's how the artist's son Christopher explained his father’s motives in avoiding theoretical justification of his work, "I think he feared that by offering people the beginning of an answer, or the illusion of an answer, to his artwork, they would never find a more complete one, perhaps never even ask the necessary questions. He knew of this danger and was therefore guarded in discussing his work, often finding that, the more he said, the more misunderstanding he generated."
Roughly speaking, Rothko didn't want to chew on meanings and put them into the public's mouth, like a caring mother would do to her little chicks. However, he was prone not only to endless reflection, existential torments and doubts, but also self-irony. "It might be true, Jensen, as you claim, that comedy, ecstasy and loftiness of spirit are what I actually stand for and that I only exploit talk about tragedy and despair," Rothko responded to the critical remarks of his friend and colleague – abstractionist Alfred Jensen.
9. But shouldn't there be at least something we know about what Rothko was guided by when creating his paintings?
Yes, there actually is something we know and we owe it to Elaine de Kooning's article in the Art News Annual, in which she managed to compare Rothko with Franz Kline and put him on the list of artists who create "spontaneous painting of action". The artist didn't like it and hurried to explain himself at a public speech at the Pratt Institute.
In short, Rothko shrugged off the fact that his paintings were an act of self-expression, as in the case of Kline. He sought to convey the internal state of the individual with the help of seven components, which he used in exact dosage.
So, write down the artistic recipe from chef Rothko:
1. A clearly expressed idea of death as an indication of the finiteness of life journey. Tragic art, as well as romantic and, in fact, any other type of art, deals with the awareness of death.
2. Sensuality ... voluptuous intimacy with everything that surrounds you.
3. Tension. Either a conflict or a pent-up desire.
4. Irony – a modern ingredient: self-deprecation and control, allowing you to instantly switch to something else.
5. Wit and play... for the human component.
6. Transience and eventuality.
7. Hope. 10% – to allow making the concept of tragedy a little more endurable.
That what Rothko was like: he combined extraordinary sense of humour, giving away an intelligent intellectual, and the utmost seriousness which never let him compromise, even at the slightest. No matter how many times he was ascribed searches in the field of formal boundaries of the possible within the framework of an artistic act, he stubbornly stood his ground: "I would sooner confer anthropomorphic attributes upon a stone, than dehumanize the slightest possibility of consciousness."
As far as possible, the artist resisted giving explanations of his works. "Silence is so accurate," said Rothko fearing that words only paralyze the viewers' work of the mind and imagination.
10. Is he even sane, this Rothko?
Considering that the artist voluntarily put an end to his life by cutting his veins, he definitely had some mental problems. As pretty much half of the representatives of abstract expressionism did. An analysis of the medical records of the leading avant-garde artists from New York revealed that a good half of them suffered from depression or bipolar disorder.
But there are also other research studies on the relationship between creativity and vulnerability to mental illnesses. Their results are deplorable for the creators, since often these phenomena go hand in hand. It must be said that some of the artists intuitively felt this relationship long before the official scientific findings.
For example, Munch avoided mental health treatment for a long time: "My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art. I'd rather suffer." But when the attacks became quite unbearable, he sought medical attention. Anf guess what? The pictures he painted after that were so different from everything he had created before the treatment that one collector even suspected fraud. He thought that those paintings were created not by the brilliant Munch, but by some other artist.
There is another curious nuance. There are many factors that affect the final price of paintings sold at auctions. So, according to Phillip Hook, the author of the book Breakfast at Sotheby's, information about bodily illnesses from which artists suffered when creating their paintings, can reduce the demand for them. However, it is not the case for mental illnesses: such diagnoses only add points to the author in the eyes of buyers. Apparently, they also believe that genius and madness are inseparable.
11. And what is so unique about your Rothko? Why can't any other artist do that?
Other artists can't do that, because they are not Rothko. What is so unique about him? – He himself is. Rothko's paintings are not just the canvases and paints. They are his biography, his tragedies, his searches, sweat and blood, feelings and sensitivity, doubts, torments and pain – a lot of pain.
According to the law of conservation of energy, nothing can disappear without a trace. Rothko's energy and charisma will forever stay in his paintings, and looking at them or paying seven-figure sums, viewers want to touch the creator himself, to possess something created by his hands.
At a certain stage, the evaluation of the artist's work inevitably turns into the evaluation of the creator's personality. Rothko is an intellectual of such a level that his semantic delicacy is a real challenge for the translator. It is easier to paraphrase the artist's quote in your own words than to adequately convey the full depth, the figurativeness of his thinking and the layering of meanings.
Speech is a reflection of mind; paintings are a similar reflection. Difficult for understanding, contradictory, causing such a range of opinions and emotions that Rothko, if he was alive, would only rub his hands with satisfaction.
Just like music, painting has inmaterial properties. Just like music, it can instantly change the mood, make you cry or smile. "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," said one of the greats. Trying to convey the value and uniqueness of some artist is similar bodily movements.
Some people are into progressive metal, others find balm for their soul in Schnittke's symphonies. And if you are not inspired by Rothko's paintings, it does not mean that you have "no ear for music." Maybe, they are just not for you. But people who hear his notes don't pretend and don't imitate the understanding of "highbrow" art. They are only tuned to a different frequency, consonant with his experiences.
For those who cannot hear, all is not lost either. Even a bad ear for music can be eventually developed. And under certain conditions, the inability of simply distinguishing false notes can turn into the ability to detect a quarter-tone error.
12. But how can you come to love Rothko and stop worrying?
It's impossible to "come to love" him. The formula "love cannot be forced" works even with Rothko. But it's possible to stop worrying.
We'll need a joke here.
One of the characters of the Friends series blurted out something obscene, and the other one exclaimed in horror: "But you will kiss your children with this mouth!" It seems that those who aggressively reject Rothko have the same problem. They are horrified by the fact that people use the words 'painting' and 'art' in reference to Rothko – the very ones which we use when speaking of Vermeer and Rembrandt!
Well, invent new words then. Translate these ones into Esperanto. Trick yourself somehow into approaching Rothko.
Turn off snobbery, turn on curiosity. Many people say that they experienced unusual feelings in front of Rothko's works without using banned substances, legally and without side effects. Aren't you intrigued?
In order to get closer to Rothko and try to understand his paintings, there is no need to do anything on purpose – even to read our articles. They are intended for intuitive perception. But you need to prepare in order to put your mind to go to Houston, New York, London or Tel Aviv to see the originals of Rothko's paintings, or at least to find good reproductions of them: read a couple of books, understand how art has come from Vermeer to abstractionism and why a painting is not only a depiction of reality. Knowledge is needed only in order to stop repeating old jokes about abstract art and take the first step to meet Rothko. He will do the rest himself.
Read also: Mark Rothko as a successor of Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse and other great artists
Cover illustration: Mark Rothko. No. 10.
Authors: Natalia Azarenko, Anna Vchorashnia, Natalia Kandaurova