Mark Rothko (1978)

“Mark Rothko at the Guggenheim, New York,” Artists Review, 2:4 (November 10, 1978), p. 3.

Mark Rothko at the Guggenheim, New York

Rothko's work speaks to us with great eloquence from 1958 to his death. But it is his very last works of 1969 to 1970 (the black/brown and grey paintings) that I wish to discuss. In approaching the work, we should read them neither in relation to then contemporary painting that owed so much to Rothko and Newman (i.e., Ryman, Marden) nor from the history of his own oeuvre. The one-to-one relationship demanded by each painting is inherent in each series of his work where new intentions create their own specific problems and conditions for development. To read his work in terms of his younger contemporaries or as a logical progression from his earlier work is to ask the wrong questions of the paintings, questions the paintings did not set to answer. To formally analyse the work is somewhat to betray it. But at the same time to look for the ‘meaning’ in this work is a metaphysical transcendent endeavour. This attempt usually leads to vulgar ‘state of mind’ interpretation of the paintings.

What interests me in the late works is what Rothko did not do. The two striking new aspects of the work are the white unpainted border of the canvas or paper and a horizontal the width of the inner area that bifurcates the canvas or sheet and separates the black/brown from the grey. Gone are the hovering rectangular forms set against a background. The clarity and harmony of the total form is carried by the border. With attention taken away from the inner relationships of form to form, of form to the edge, of form to its own weight and colour, Rothko could concentrate on the surface image alone. Not the surface alone, but the image. Note all the different and new types of brush handling Rothko employed in these works. It is also important to note that Rothko did not reduce the painting to structure or surface alone: it is not a reductivist activity that would relate his painting to Marden and Ryman. Rothko did not repeat the edge within the canvas as a geometric or numerical division; and the division is not an exact horizontal, just as Malevich's forms are not perpendicular to the canvas edges, that is, they are not reductively derived from the edges of the canvas.

Rothko always maintained that he was concerned with subject matter in his work, even though it might be manifested abstractly. The content I perceive in the work is the symbolic relationship established with the spectator. That is, the work enacts a symbolic reconciliation. Setting aside the common notion of a symbol as a mere signifying element, a symbol has a ‘meaning’ that is present in its own sensuous nature. It does not represent something absent alone, because it actually presents something that is really present. A symbol joins the two spheres of the visible and invisible, just as the canvas is that symbolic link, of a sensuous nature, between the spectator and the ‘content’ of the painting. Because the symbol suggests a unity and because it can be inexhaustively interpreted, Rothko's work is the possibility of symbolic relation. And although Rothko would maintain that this is a transcendent relationship, given our contemporary sensibility, we can only replace this by concrete being-in-the-world in relation to the work.