What is the point of pretty paintings in a time of ethnic genocide? That is the question that Mark 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 mad 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.”
His eventual answer to this came 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,” mirror 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.”
Many people have sat in front of his enormous canvasses and experienced just that, all the full rush of human existence depicted in only a few solid blocks of vibrant colour with blurred edges. Critics in favour of the form have often bandied around terms, such as ‘religious experience’ and ‘dematerialised pure light’. On the other hand, they’re many who have sat in front of Rothko and witnessed before them nothing more than a curious sidenote in the annuls of art. Some people were even so bemused by the accreditation of what they saw as art of no more merit or distinction than paint samples tried out on a wall before getting the decorators in that they believed the CIA had funded it.
Rothko was one such artist that came under suspicion. For years he had been one of many artists struggling in the New York art scene, making precious little money from his early expressionist works. Then only two years after the Second World War, with tensions between Russia and the rest of the world mounting, the New York art scene was gripped by a crackle of electrified energy that catapulted a band of an artist under the umbrella of Abstract Expressionists to global acclaim. Rothko, along with Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, were the leading beneficiaries of this explosion.
The uptake in Rothko’s work seemed to be almost immediately catalysed following his 1947 efforts. By the 1950s, his paintings were lauded as revolutionary works of brilliance, incomparable to anything seen before, both in terms of scope and execution. In 1973, this reaction came under the radar as art critic Max Kozloff examined the Abstract Expressionism movement and ridiculed the “self-congratulatory mood” of it as being “a form of benevolent propaganda.” Since then, people have taken the argument Kozloff posited a step further and outright claimed the whole thing was some sort of scheme cooked up by the CIA. A sort of, ‘let’s champion something utterly insane to flummox the Russian’ sting operation. Critic David Anfam claims that it is “a well-documented fact” that the CIA funded Rothko’s work, stating that the intention was to impart an image on global consciousness that “America was the land of the free,” whereas the Soviet Realist style was “locked up, culturally speaking.”
Such assertions, however, offer little explanation for how average American’s could wander into a gallery, gaze up at a Rothko and feel they were witnessing the manifestation of something divine. Even if it was revealed with literal documented fact that the CIA funded certain exhibitions, would that dimmish the experiential wonder that many experienced with the art itself? If an essential element of art is in its power to provoke then, Rothko had succeeded to an almost unrivalled degree in this regard.
The one thing that unified both schools of judgement was that his style was undeniably new, and when you consider that art stretches all the way back to cave paintings, there is something to be said for that alone. Rothko had not only revolutionised the landscape form but, in fact, he had revolutionised what you could put on canvas full stop.
With his revolutionary works, Rothko was obsessively meticulous about how they were displayed. He instructed galleries on lighting, positioning and every other fastidious detail in between. This perfectionist view on creativity was a troubling crux for the artist. In his work, we can see first-hand the burden of the artists frenzied spirit. Such intense, strong will that manifests itself in his paintings was naturally not as unwavering in the person himself.
Rothko, whose real name is Mark Rothkowitz, attempted to diminish the load of his burden through drinking and chain-smoking. His intense need to create also drove him into isolation. He suffered through chronic anxiety, and eventually, in conjunction with his increasingly profligate lifestyle, he suffered an aneurism. Having to adapt his paintings after this health scare depressed the ailing artist further. He defied doctors’ orders and continued to smoke and drink. In 1970, at the age of 66, he committed suicide, taking an overdose of barbiturates and slashing an artery.
Mark Rothko leaves behind a legacy untouched by controversy and division even after his passing. His work was both a bold reflection of the times and the singular mindset of an innovative man. As the Abstract Expressionist movement is continually distilled in debate it proves as divisive as ever, with some championing the notion that the style is not only necessary in the digital age but a nebulous triumph of what art can be. Others dismiss it as a pompous failure. Australian art critic Robert Hughes 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?”