Exorcising Fears of the Abstract: Mark Rothko’s #14, “Serenity About to Explode”

Abstract art: a product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.
Al Capp

Purely abstract art has always puzzled me.  You know, the type of art in which you cannot see a recognizable object—human or otherwise. Usually, I look at such a painting and wonder if I am supposed to read some meaning in it other than how its colors or shapes affect me  And if for me that meaning is absent, what am I missing that the more enlightened see?  How many viewers of abstract art are actually just pretending or are compelled by fashion to see or feel something? 

I like certain abstract paintings largely because their colors appeal to me. Colors that elicit some emotion or mood.   And because I also paint,  I admire abstract art when I discern some unique or special ways in how the painter applied paint. Anyway, to lessen the mystery of abstraction I took an online Modern Art course. 

That’s when I met Mark Rothko’s Number 14, painted in 1960, an abstract  piece that appeals to many of my friends.  Part of a series (per its number title), it hangs on a second floor wall at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  With this painting,  maybe others in this series  and the mostly black paintings of his last years, I believe Mark Rothko follows a trajectory traceable to  Vincent Van Gogh.  In #14, 1960, Mark Rothko infuses his canvas with a painter’s intense (tortured?) angst.

Rothko, #14 1960

This interpretation might seem like a stretch.  Rothko claimed, at a 1958 lecture at Pratt Institute, that his paintings were not about self-expression.  Number 14, 1960, is pure abstraction.  Unlike Van Gogh’s  paintings (e.g., Starry Night), it doesn’t reproduce figures or objects— however distorted or stylized—and seems to be about nothing, in particular.  But like Van Gogh,  Rothko was allegedly predisposed to intense emotions and self-doubts. Both committed suicide, Van Gogh with a gun and Rothko, a razor blade and drugs. 

A Russian Jew whose family immigrated to Oregon when he was 10, Mark Rothko stepped into a strange country, its language foreign, his family poor and his father dead six months after their arrival.  By a brother’s account, “a high-strung,  noticeably sensitive child”—Rothko might have had pestering enduring scars from those years.  He did adapt well, learned English, advanced quickly in school and graduated from high school at the fairly typical age of 18. His good grades  won him a scholarship to Yale.

He left Yale after two years partly because he found the strong anti-Semitic sentiments there unbearable.  In his last years, debilitating health problems, a broken marriage, and agonizing professional doubts might have led to dependence on drugs and alcohol.  Rothko probably never felt he truly belonged.  Many who knew him sensed an underlying anger and feelings of foreboding that plagued him despite his success.  (Source: Breslin, James B. Mark Rothko: A  Biography.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.)

1364px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

How is Number 14 dark?  In Van Gogh’s Starry Night, something menacing lurks in the swirling emphatic brushstrokes and dark colors of the foreground tree and the stormy skies.  But Rothko’s Number 14, is mostly  amorphous color applied layer upon thin layer to allow  hints of underlying colors.  The brighter, “purer” colors of the early 1950s  gave way to darker muddied tones of deep reds, maroon and purple.   Dark blue, usually the color of depression,  is mixed with red in varying proportions—more in the smaller rectangular purple at the bottom and less in the surrounding maroon.  The overall mood of the picture is dark.

But what about  the big red patch, the color of passion and violence particularly in their more saturated states?  Here’s Rothko:

I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene, whether on friendship or mere observation, that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.

Violence doesn’t always refer to aggressive acts inflicted on another. It can simply allude to  intense emotions (e.g., violently in love).  For Rothko, though, anger seemed a powerful force in his  life that, in the end, he expressed as a  violent  act against himself.   Rothko agreed with an art critic that his paintings were more accurately described as “serenity about to explode.”   At Pratt Institute, he  said art should have “intimations of death.”

Carving a niche in the art world after WWII meant immersing oneself in Abstract Expressionism.  The movement excluded references to objects and figures but presumed to express emotions and universal truth arising from the unconscious.  Touted as the first truly revolutionary American art movement, its supremacy in the late 40s to mid-50s  American art scene was assured in the writings of three influential art critics:  Meyer Shapiro, Harold Rosenberg, and Clement Greenberg.   Mention by these critics meant recognition and marketability.  For Rothko, it might have seemed the only choice.  He found his mature style in floating fields of color, successfully mining it for 20 years.

Rothko’s battles with himself may be seen in the darkest paintings in his last years. Had Rothko not killed himself, would we assess these works differently? 

Rothko’s paintings taught me that to  fully understand abstract art, you must dig into how and why they were created.  And yet, if you find they appeal to your mood and sense of beauty, maybe that’s enough.

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