Christopher Rothko—the highly affable son of the famed not-so-affable Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970)—has written a volume of essays lovingly re-examining his father’s life and work. Entitled Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, it was published last November by Yale University Press, and its author has been promoting it with a passion inspired by devotion to the parent whose suicide left him bereft at the tender age of six.
As my readers are probably aware, I’m no fan of Rothko’s work (see, most recently, “Barking Up the Wrong Trees in Art Education”). So it’s not surprising that I welcomed the opportunity to go head to head with Christopher earlier this month on the subject of his father’s paintings.
The unlikely venue was the New York City Junto [more]. I say unlikely because that monthly discussion forum—founded three decades ago by investor Victor Niederhoffer (who has generously hosted it ever since)—has focused on matters related to free markets, the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, and investing. Ayn Rand notwithstanding, art has rarely been more than a tangential topic of discussion.
This month’s surprising departure from that pattern was due to Gene Epstein, the Junto’s main moderator in recent years. Epstein’s day job is as the economics and books editor of Barron’s weekly business magazine. But he happens to be married to abstract painter Hisako Kobayashi—who initiated him into the ranks of Rothko admirers, as he explained in his introductory remarks.
There was a particular irony in a Junto session devoted to Mark Rothko’s work, however, for Ayn Rand made a compelling case against the idea that any abstract work could be an objectively meaningful form of art. So I gladly accepted Epstein’s kind invitation to present my contrarian view—as summarized in these brief remarks [click on > to hear audio]
and fleshed out in dialogue with Christopher Rothko.
Rothko’s overriding aim as an artist, his son explained, was to find a “universal language” for his work—in order to move the maximum number of people, in a way comparable to music. As Christopher put it, Rothko was actually a painter who aspired to be a musician. With the proper training that is the vocation he would have chosen. Feeling a particular kinship with the music of Mozart (his favorite composer), he sought to create a visual analogue that would convey an emotional sense of the “human condition”—the “darker side” of life along with its joyful aspect—much as Mozart’s music does.
In that connection, color was for Rothko “almost synonymous with emotion,” Christopher noted. By applying layers of color, the painter hoped to suggest different emotions. Yet he seems to have discovered for himself that the analogy between abstract art and music soon breaks down, as I argued in my remarks. Consequently, he moved away from his early use of bright colors, because—Christopher explained—people read them as more “joyous” than he had intended (in contrast, would one ever hear intentionally sad music as joyous?).
Over time, therefore, Rothko’s palette became darker and darker and his canvases increasingly “minimalist,” Christopher noted, until they reached the nearly black monochrome aspect of his murals for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. That work came up in relation to the claim, quoted by Epstein from Christopher’s book, that Rothko was a great painter in part because “he pushed painting to do things it wasn’t necessarily designed to do.” Asked by Epstein what he thought painting was not necessarily designed to do, Christopher responded that it centers on the way we need to bring ourselves to the paintings—the need to slow down, spend time, and “lose yourself in them.” Of the Rothko Chapel, he observed, it’s a space “you can walk into and say ‘there’s nothing here’ and be absolutely right”—if, he added, you don’t spend the time to complete the “interactive process” the painter aimed for.
Early in the discussion, Christopher had noted that his father believed “the most powerful expression of an idea is abstract.” Yet he loved figurative paintings such as Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride. Moreover, as I later discovered. Rothko much admired the work of another representational painter, Piero della Francesca (to whom, Christopher noted, my blog happens to be dedicated!)—once arguing that he might have been the greatest artist who ever lived.
That is not the only contradiction begging to be reconciled regarding Rothko’s abstract work. In response to my remarks, Christopher surprisingly avowed that he actually agrees with most of what I said. In particular, he urges in his book that his father’s biography be left out of consideration in response to the work. Further, despite his prior emphasis on color, he now acknowledged that it is “secondary” to form, and cited an essay in his book entitled “The Quiet Dominance of Form.” On that point, he reported that his father was almost obsessive in adjusting the dimensions and proportions of the rectangular forms in his paintings. That limited repertoire of minimalist shapes is scarcely what I think of as meaningful “form” in painting, however—a term that instead conjures up for me the wealth of human figures, objects, and settings depicted by representational artists such as Rembrandt or Piero.
Although Christopher, like his father, loves the representational work of those and other masters, he said he struggles to find meaning in such work, insisting that to be art it must be about something more than the mere image. That is another point on which we happen to agree. Though I hadn’t touched on it in my brief remarks, I’ve stressed it throughout my work, including Who Says That’s Art?. Imagery in art is not an end in itself. It serves to embody values and a view of life.
One of the most telling moments of the evening occurred during the Q&A. Recounting a visit to the Rothko Chapel. a young woman seemed to echo what Christopher had said. “At first,” she confided,
I was perplexed by it, . . . and it felt like there was nothing there speaking to me. But I sat for a while, quietly, . . . and then I felt something. And the longer I sat there, the more I felt—the more energy and depth I felt from the paintings, which at first had felt very flat. And suddenly I realized that this whole space was humming, and it was quite powerful.
My question is, how much of that feeling was evoked by sitting in enforced silence in an enclosed, relatively bare space designated as a “chapel” (whose design had been largely overseen by Rothko)—rather than by the alleged power of the paintings themselves? In other words, how much of the “interactive process” Rothko aimed for in truth boils down to a viewer’s projection of self-generated feelings onto the nearly blank slate provided by the paintings?1
Readers can easily guess what my answer would be.
- In my remarks, I suggested that knowledge of Rothko’s troubled life, ending in suicide, may contribute to the emotional response some viewers have to his work. Contrary to that suggestion, Kobayashi (see above) reported that her first contact with Rothko’s work was at the 1978 Guggenheim Museum retrospective, when she knew very little about his biography. What moved her, she said, was the sense that he could “touch feeling without forms” and that he understood the “condition that we all live” in—the “pain” as well as the “happiness.” Such an account—from a fellow abstract painter who shares the same premises—does not prompt me to alter my general view, however, that emotional responses to Rothko’s work are mainly self-generated, rather than evoked by visual attributes of the paintings themselves. ↩