Some people gaze up at a Mark Rothko painting and see heaven, hell and the human comedy depicted with knee-trembling grace. Others see an IKEA colour chart with an eyewatering price tag and think, ‘yeah, the human comedy indeed’. Since his blood-like last painting was completed in 1970, a matter of weeks before his suicide, Rothko has never stopped being a source of controversy and conversation. If that, in itself, proves to be art at its most engaging then his legacy deserves to be rightfully lauded. However, if conspiracy colours blocks and blurs as a condemnable con then the art world ought to move on. 52 years later, the question still remains, and the quandary deepens.
What is the point of pretty paintings in a time of ethnic genocide? That is the question that Rothko and his abstract contemporaries were faced with in the wake of the Second World War. Only a few decades earlier, artists wrestled with the same war-torn question, and Marcel Duchamp answered by hanging a bog-standard urinal in an art gallery. Duchamp’s point, in short, was that the only way to reflect a world gone absolutely potty was with an equally asinine embodiment.
It was Rothko’s belief that to follow artistic tradition was “not only irrelevant but irresponsible”. Therefore, his idea was to capture “tragic and timeless subject matter” in its simplest form in order to achieve “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.” This elimination of obstacles laughed at the communist artists over the sea painstakingly sweating over peasants in fields and the leaves on trees. Did that laughter come from a place of progressive creativity or con artists in conspiracy?
This much is proven: The Congress for Cultural Freedom was an anti-communist advocacy group founded in 1950. This group promoted American ideals. It promoted Rothko exhibitions as part of those ideals. This group was also a funded offshoot of the CIA. Thus, it has been argued that the CIA purposefully elevated Pollock’s art both in terms of value and acclaim as a way to diminish socialist realism. In other words, those daft Commies are still doling out drab pictures of pleasant panoramas for pennies, whereas Rothko and co were quite literally extolling the freedom of the human soul on canvas and their bright new world deserved to be handsomely rewarded.
However, the fundamental twist is that Rothko began embarking on this venture in 1947 with the first use of his now-instantly recognisable blocks of colour. A style which he believed expressed “human emotion, with the human drama,” mirroring the despairing silence depicted in 19th Century luminism, but on a far grander scale. With utter simplicity, Rothko sought to create paintings that brought the world to tears. “I am interested only in expressing basic emotions,” he once said, adding: “Tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on.”
If luminism had already touched upon this notion, then no matter radical Rothko’s works proved to be, does there really need to be a conspiracy to explain why natural progression was greeted with wide open arms by a stilted art world in need of liberation since the advent of coloured cameras? After all, are blocks of colours any more ludicrous than a toilet?
Well, according to the writer Kurt Vonnegut, the answer is a somewhat resounding yes. As he writes in his novel Bluebeard: “Modern art is a conspiracy between shysters and the rich to make poor people feel stupid!” In other words, ‘let say that there is life and death contained in all these scribbles and those who don’t see it have to either go along with it or squark from their lowly perch’.
This notion gains a lot of traction if you consider the time period when Rothko came to the fore. The 1950s were a period of affluence in America amid an economy that relied on consumers driving growth. In order to prosper, America had to assert that you need a toaster and that grills were now old hat. The world was changing, and America imparted a message that they were an engine of freedom and progress and completely different from the many Napoleon-like dinosaurs over the Bering Strait who liked grey pictures and folks on horseback and watercolours of ironmongeries.
Radical new art forms proclaimed as boldly as can be: “Come mothers and fathers, Throughout the land, And don’t criticize, What you can’t understand, Your sons and your daughters, Are beyond your command, Your old road is rapidly agin’, Please get out of the new one, If you can’t lend your hand, For the times they are a-changin’.” That was grand coming from Bob Dylan who had substance and sincerity behind his liberating words. After all, the world was in need of a progressive change and, in a way, pop culture illuminated that. And at the end of the day, most of the realist counterparts now reside on the ash heap of history even in retrospect.
However, the problem for many people is that Rothko’s works didn’t have the substance or sincerity of Dylan. They might have professed to contain the plight of man, but where and how? Even Duchamp could tell you the reasoning behind his toilet and it would prove hard to argue with, but try telling the folks on the street that a black block above a red block with a small yellow block in between actually depicts places “where two sadness can meet” and suddenly Kurt Vonnegut’s argument lands profoundly.
Australian art critic Robert Hughes once quoted Abstract artists Barnett Newman on the matter who famously said, “I thought our quarrel was with Michelangelo?” to which Hughes responded, “Well bad luck Barney, you lost?” Rothko might now occupy column inches aplenty, but if his goal was to connect to primordial human emotions then not many punters would champion him as a creative genius. Whether that is a matter of a con or otherwise is pretty much redundant (despite how interesting CIA involvement might seem), but the bottom line is “if the highest purpose of art is to inspire” as Bob Dylan once said it was, then Rothko has inspired more discussions about art than art itself.