Long Spells of Looking

Peter Campbell

  • Mark Rothko edited by Jeffrey Weiss
    Yale/National Gallery of Art, Washington, 352 pp, £40.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 300 07505 7
  • Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas by David Anfam
    Yale/National Gallery of Art, Washington, 708 pp, £75.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 300 07489 1

There is a picture of Mark Rothko taken at his East Hampton studio in 1964. He is sitting on one of those solid wooden beach chairs that stand around on the porches of Long Island summer cottages, looking at one of his own paintings as one might look at the sea, patiently pursuing all that his picture has in it. He was famous for this: for attending on the effect of each change in the angle or intensity of light, for looking close up and far off. In the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (it goes on to Paris in January) Barbara Novak and Brian O’Doherty write:

In the last year of Rothko’s life we spent many hours in the crepuscular half-darkness of the studio on East 69th Street looking at black on grey pictures with Rothko ... through those long spells of looking, accompanied by long silences, our opinions were solicited with a deceptive humility. Newly evicted from the paintings, Rothko shared the spectator’s puzzlement: what are these about? How did they come to be? Why did I make them? What, if anything, do they mean?

By then, at the end of a ‘voyage inwards, perilously sustained with increasingly reduced means’, he was in a cruel situation – one quite distinct from, although perhaps contributing to, his poor mental and physical state. He had believed art to be serious. His paradigms of seriousness were literary and musical. He had made his play and won tremendous praise. But American painting in the late Sixties no longer had a place for his view of the tragic, or indeed any kind of high seriousness; he was a Masaccio among fan painters. If Rothko had been on the right track why was he so isolated? The size of his ambition made the usual ups and downs of style and reputation seem like a denial of its essence, not just a passing misfortune. The claims abstract painting made in the Fifties – and Rothko bid as high as anyone – were such that one expected it to remain in the ascendant for more than the decade or so that it lasted. He said that he wanted to raise painting to ‘the level of poignancy of music and poetry’. His ‘tragic sense,’ Novak and O’Doherty write, ‘which manifested itself as a degree of pathos in his everyday life, had little traffic with the distancing ironies of Modernism.’ He seems to have found justification for his high ambition – for himself and for the art of painting – in Nietzsche: ‘The language Nietzsche uses to characterise the discourse of the Apollonian and Dionysian may have had a seductive power for Rothko: “illusion”, “hallucinations”, “dream”, “veils”, “mirror”, “reflections”, “essence and appearance”, “the sublime, which subjugates terror by means of art”’. This is literary talk, not painter’s talk, and Rothko’s beginnings would suggest a future in writing, not painting.

He was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia, in 1903. In 1913 he and his mother went to Portland to join his father, who had emigrated to America three years earlier. In 1914 his father died. Rothko graduated from high school in 1921 and was awarded a Yale scholarship. In 1923 he helped found the Yale Saturday Post – and made at least one contribution, on ‘False Gods’. In the fall of that year he left without a degree and worked in New York as a book-keeper for his uncle. In 1924 he enrolled in art classes, then returned to Portland, where he studied acting. By 1929 he was back in New York and teaching art two days a week. He became a friend of Adolph Gottlieb and of Milton Avery: there were poetry readings (the work of Eliot and Wallace Stevens was in favour). And so on through the Thirties – he joined a group (The Ten), exhibited, wrote (about children’s art, for instance). In 1938 he became a naturalised American. In 1939 his work appeared in an exhibition, The Ten: Whitney Dissenters. Later that year the group broke up, perhaps for political reasons. In 1940 Rothkowitz became Rothko. He had married Edith Sachar, a jeweller, in 1932; they divorced in 1944 and in 1945 Rothko married an illustrator, Mell Beistle. He gave her a copy of Kafka’s The Trial; he was reading Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard.

Now in his forties, Rothko had had one-man shows and was written about a little, but no canvas he had completed so far would be recognised as a Rothko by anyone who only knows what he painted in the Fifties. His work was a bit surrealist (an echo of Max Ernst here and there), sometimes almost social realist – for example, in a subway painting more flat and decorative than Hopper’s, but with the same taste for the look of the ordinary urban scene. ‘The most interesting painting,’ he said in 1947, ‘is one which expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees. Philosophic or esoteric thought for example’ – and one would guess that it was dreams rather than pure abstraction he had in mind. But the earliest pictures in which all the shapes sit on the surface, and the cloudy edges of rough rectangles and blobs announce Rothko’s classic style, come from that year.

His youth and early maturity had been spent in a bohemian world in which money was short and seriousness the rule. It was an oddity of the times that the transition from beleaguered minority to dominance took place with a swiftness which devalued the struggle. And without the struggle, this kind of painting could seem too easy. It wasn’t easy, although it wasn’t in any ordinary sense skilful either. And one consequence was the kind of teasing dialogue between painters and their fans and critics in which seriousness took on all kinds of dandified, political and personal guises. The doubts – ‘What are these about? How did they come to be? Why did I make them? What, if anything, do they mean?’ – were there to be shared; the painter and the viewer were both explorers.

The story of the Four Seasons paintings typifies the tensions which arose when Rothko’s idea of his work rubbed up against the life which that work would have in the world. The Four Seasons, at the foot of the Seagram building, was to be the smartest restaurant in the smartest building in New York. The dark slab and the wide, open terrace it faced were a riposte in a European voice to the stepped and finialled towers and canyon-streets of native American skyscraper design. It was a triumph of style. In this context the paintings Rothko produced would have become decorations. The chance of someone sitting in long, silent contemplation while the life of a restaurant went on around them was more or less nil. So he withdrew them.

The Chapel at Houston built by the Menil Foundation to house another set of his pictures, lit and furnished according to his specification, was, from his point of view, a proper environment for them. Now, when his work is already well embedded in history, the Houston Chapel gets respectful but slightly subdued notices. One approaches the Seagram pictures, now in the Tate, curious and a little apprehensive, as one might a chasm remembered from a childhood visit. Will it be disappointingly small, or still disconcerting, not altogether agreeably overwhelming? The first thought is that Rothko has been vindicated. He has become an old master: recognisable, inimitable, grand. The second is that to achieve this safe place is to lose the power to terrify which accompanies the ascent from one unsteady foothold to another. There are bodies of work in which that does not matter, but with Rothko when you come back to the remembered scene and find it both sublime, as you remembered it, and at the same time calm, unclouded by a sense of danger, you feel that, having gone so bravely on up the exposed route he had pioneered – to even duller colour, even greater simplicity, even less caressing edges to rectangles – he deserved to reverberate in the work of later generations. But no one seems to have felt that his achievement was so great that the journey he began was the only one they could imagine. Rothko added to things Matisse had done with colour (he visited and revisited the Red Studio in the Museum of Modern Art): no one found a way to pursue the implications of his own work in that way.

Those of us who like his work have let him down in a more obvious sense: we have begun to find him easy; we expect to see his pictures alongside those of Matisse and 19th-century posters and fashion photographs on the walls of pizza parlours. It seems possible that serious painting (as distinct from the seriousness which belongs to the craft itself and which makes it possible to see Picasso’s anti-war pictures as far less serious than his girls on the beach) is, at present, an almost impossible mode. Rothko’s seriousness is still there to be explored – as is Matisse’s – but his pictures are also (like Matisse’s) very pretty.

In the beautiful catalogue which has been produced for the Rothko show there are interviews with some of his younger contemporaries. None was particularly close to him. Some did not meet him at all. Others had merely dodged an expected put-down at a gallery opening or taken part in a single grumpy exchange. Their conversations – simpler, less subtle and more direct than the catalogue’s critical essays – arrive at a consensus. They do not doubt that Rothko made pictures which work in specific and predictable ways. There is a general unwillingness to engage with him as a religious painter, but an equally general tendency to admit that whatever it is which takes place between viewer and picture has a spiritual dimension. The surface of the pictures, the depth, the colour, the painterliness, is regarded nostalgically, as though Rothko was the last painter who could be painterly without having qualms about it. There is also some suggestion that the mixture of odd techniques he used has made the pictures physically unstable. A Rothko reproduction owned by the painter Brice Marden is said by Franz Meyer, curator of the Kunstmuseum in Basle, to be more like the picture when it entered the Museum than the picture itself is now.

Like Rothko’s finishing point, our starting point with these pictures must be the experience of sitting or standing and looking at them for a long time. They seem to ask for time, and that is both a reassurance – their presence still tells – and a source of doubt. For if you stare long enough at anything, particularly at any eventless thing, a plain colour, a blank wall, undefined darkness or brightness, you are likely to be overcome with a sense of nameless significance. Is Rothko’s work in this category of trance-inducing phenomena? The experience of looking tells you this is not what is happening. You go on being engaged by the physical presence of a surface on which brush-marks and variations of tone and colour do their old-master and modern-master stuff. Some of these pictures are very lovely things. Their effect is particularly sensitive to ambient light, viewing distance and the surrounding space. Rothko said of some of his pictures that he wanted people to see them close-up, so that they filled the whole visual field. Stand like that and the mind does not float off. Writing with the memory of a number of the pictures in my head and the catalogue of the National Gallery of Art exhibition in front of me, I am more confident than I have ever been that there are still things there to be found in them, and that these are not just accidents produced by the visual cortex freewheeling.

Take three ‘classic’ pictures from 1957 which come one after the other in the catalogue: No. 16 (Two Whites, Two Reds), No. 46 [Black, Ochre, Red over Red], and Black over Reds [Black on Red]. The parentheses in these titles keep track of names. None = Rothko’s own title, ( ) = in his lifetime, [ ] = posthumous. You see why people think them important. Black over Reds, for example, shows a black furry rectangle over two red ones, all three on a red ground. Black on Red takes no account of the ordering. Structural detail is interesting when three paintings are, as the titles suggest, structurally almost identical – three fuzzy rectangles over a red ground. They are all large (eight to ten feet). In No. 16 the orange-red strip is sandwiched between a narrower white strip and a deep white rectangle. The fuzzy edges of the deep rectangle project beyond a hard edge – the effect is of a piece of white fabric which has been frayed to left and right. The surface of the picture is as deep as you go. No. 46’s rectangles, more equal in size, have smoky edges. Although here, too, you see them as a surface, you also see into them to some undefined, perhaps infinite depth. This encourages unhelpful comparisons: the catalogue shows a spread from a 1959 issue of Life magazine which reproduces a sunset and a Rothko side by side. The headline reads: ‘luminous hues to evoke emotions and mystery’. Most of what is said about Rothko, including what I have written here, rarely does more than expand on – or cavil a little at – the emotion and mystery theme. One does, however, learn not to sneak in the notion of representation by the back door. The shift from mood to mood that takes place in front of these pictures is possible because there is no need to interrogate them; they are neither well nor badly drawn, neither sentimental nor true: they are paintings which work.

Start a discussion about pathos which cites, say, the figure of Christ as it appears in Rubens’s Antwerp Deposition and in the Avignon Pietà and, as it moves forward, a context begins to be established. It may be the meaning of gesture, traditions of burial, a discussion of affecting ways of disposing limbs and whether this is culturally determined or universal. Discussion of the tragic aspect of Rothko’s work very quickly gets to embarrassing questions about which colours are sad and which happy. His paintings do not have the specificity which allows a discussion like the one about pathos in Rubens to take place. They are isolated from any but the most general frames of reference, but also defended from interpretation. This has its advantages. No matter how interesting the discussion about the Rubens may be, it is also a distraction, a reason for not looking. Gallery-goers with soundguides clapped to their ears have been given an excuse for not doing the difficult thing – which is deciding whether or not to stick with the work in front of them. Only when you decide to do that, and then only if it stirs your curiosity, is a guide called for.

Accounts of wildlife which put human thoughts into the heads of animals are criticised for being anthropomorphic. To put words on the page about paintings like these which evade, deny and ignore interpretation is a mistake of the same kind. A particular kind of good manners is called for: so although the essays in the catalogue grapple intelligently and diligently with questions of meaning, intention and intelligibility, the contribution which brings you closest to the pictures and makes you most respect Rothko’s programme is rather technical – about brushes, grounds, translucency, scale. The ‘classic’ canvases are structurally simple. To describe them one needs only words to establish the absolute size of the canvas, the relative proportion and position of more or less rectangular areas on that canvas, the identity of a number of hues, and labels for very subtle variations in saturation and tone. But the variations in colour and tone, the scumblings and rubbings, were arrived at by a process which moved towards a correct result just as systematically as the repeated strokes in a Titian drawing move towards a correct result. These are not in any sense paintings you could order over the telephone. There are dull bits and shiny bits, cloudy shapes and firmer ones. The brush-marks are various, they are as firmly structured and yet as unpredictable in detail as the branching of a tree. Few painters need more patience and less interpretation when it comes to sounding out the limits of what they achieved.

I had finished writing this when David Anfam’s catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s work came to hand. This first volume lists and illustrates all the paintings on canvas. They are reproduced more or less in proportion and are presented in chronological order. The catalogue illustrations thus allow one to trace the trajectory of Rothko’s career visually. Although the revelation of greater variety than one had known about in the early work is interesting, it neither explains nor makes less remarkable the transition from doubt to authority which took place when he discovered, in more and more colourful abstractions, the flat, soft-edged blobs out of which the elements which characterise almost all his mature work evolved. Those elements – soft-edged single-coloured lines or rectangles filling almost the full width of a canvas which is read as a single-colour ground – became his subject-matter. The mature pictures are no more repetitive than Constable’s skies or Turner’s seas and storms. There is, however, a difference between Rothko’s exploration of their possibilities and more ordinary transitions from early to late styles. In the latter case there is often a broadening of manner, a freer use of brush-strokes, maybe a lightening or darkening of the palette, but the change feels organic. In Rothko’s case one has, rather, a sense that possibilities are being consciously worked out; that these may even be experiments, or the results of experiments in the strict sense of a device being tried to see not how it works but if it works. Which would, in turn, suggest that Rothko had a sense of rightness analogous to the sense which tells a painter he has achieved a certain effect of light, or a likeness in a portrait.

What can be analysed, however, and is strikingly apparent from the catalogue – although it is so easily read that to point it out may be otiose – is the direction taken by changes in the work. From complex to simple, from bright, saturated colour to dark, stormy colour, from softer to harder outlines. You cannot take a turn to left or right when walking a high wire, and the sense of increasing exposure and danger which overcomes you as you work through the last pages of the catalogue cannot be separated from a sense that Rothko was coming to the end of the particular high wire he had chosen to walk and saw nothing beyond.