Mark Rothko: The Spirit of Myth

at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, through March 17

By Fred Camper

Among the viewers of the young Jasper Johns’s first one-person show, in 1958 at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, was Mark Rothko. The exhibit was an instant hit: it nearly sold out, and three paintings went immediately to the Museum of Modern Art. A decade earlier Rothko had finally moved to complete abstraction, and in about 1950–reaching what he called his “delayed maturity”–he’d begun producing his finest work. Viewing the American flags and circular targets of Johns’s paintings, Rothko remarked, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”

Actually it took decades for Rothko to produce the abstractions of his mature work, a progression that can now be seen in a superb show at the Smart Museum. These 25 paintings, dating from 1930 to 1951 (with one from 1970, the year of Rothko’s suicide, which followed a serious illness), range from interesting failures to masterpieces. But throughout, Rothko’s progress is clear: he was journeying away from the specific. The social content in his early paintings soon gave way to abstracted myth images, which led to biomorphic abstractions and finally to the glowing rectangles of his mature pieces. But even the least successful early works illuminate the masterpieces to come.

Rothko’s paintings from 1930 until about 1947 are usually striking, sometimes moving, and often not fully organized wholes, and they almost always borrow from other 20th-century painters and styles. In many cases, areas of the picture seem to struggle against one another, which is both the basis of the painting’s interest and one reason for its lack of success. This exhibit includes several such transitional works–plus two of his fully mature paintings–so that we can see where Rothko’s struggle will lead, to abstractions at once devoid of particulars and overflowing with emotion. This is definitely a show to see at least twice: knowing the end of the process, in 1950, makes the beginning more compelling.

Moreover, Rothko’s long struggle should prove instructive and inspiring to young artists who are often given sympathetic “critiques” and premature public exhibits by art schools, then abandon art in their 20s when they haven’t found success. Here’s a painter who began in his early 20s and worked as close to full-time as he could but didn’t really find himself or get good until he was almost 50. He kept painting even after his marriage broke up, in part because his wife had stopped believing in his work. Rothko gained gallery representation only at 47, and he was over 50 before he could live off his painting.

Nor was his early art sustained by any joie de vivre. The first paintings in this show are figurative, but the figures are solitary, somber, unrevealing, well described in an essay Rothko published in 1947 as “tableau vivant[s] of human incommunicability.” The woman at the center of No. 1, c. 1930/’35 (I’ll refer to untitled works by their wall-label numbers in this exhibit), faces us, and physically she seems close, masses of color forming her hair and dress and flesh, but her eyes are dark, hidden. No. 2 (1935/’39) appears to depict an open plaza with a kiosk at its center and four figures grouped around it as if they were waiting for someone or something. None of the four figures looks at the others, or even stands so as to acknowledge their presence; the rest of the plaza, defined by a solid mass of gray paint, is empty. In this powerful presentation of urban alienation each person is locked into a separate world; but more important, No. 2 points–like so much of Rothko’s early work–to the possibility of transformation. The empty space and the four waiting figures suggest that something is about to happen.

Suggestions of transformation are more explicit in Subway (1936/’39), one of several paintings of New York train stations. This time we know what the six tall figures standing on a platform are waiting for. Again, no one looks at anyone else. These almost grotesquely elongated figures stand amid thin pillars supporting the station roof; to make the connection even stronger, Rothko places three of the figures right next to pillars. The tan and gray color scheme also integrates the figures and the station. While as in most of the early works Rothko’s point isn’t fully developed, what the viewer experiences is a diffusion of human identity: people are becoming like architecture, but at the same time the pillars seem almost animate. A few years later Rothko would write, “I would sooner confer anthropomorphic attributes upon a stone, than dehumanize the slightest possibility of consciousness.”

Among Rothko’s key early influences are Giorgio De Chirico, surrealism, and his friend Milton Avery, who painted abstracted landscapes. Surrealism’s influence becomes more prominent in the next group of pictures, dating from the early 40s: they depict strange combinations of human and animal or human and human, often suggesting classical mythology. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we’re seeing a single figure with two heads or two figures copulating. No. 5 (c. 1941) is apparently two intertwined figures, male and female, but with animallike legs. Stressing the figures’ combined unity and diversity, one line of curly hair covers their combined head, the hair black for the male at left and greenish for the woman at right. The woman looks toward an abstracted doorway to the side, hinting at a coming change.

Born in 1903 to Jewish parents in the Russian city of Daugavpils (then Dvinsk), Rothko emigrated to the United States in 1913, traveling by train across country to Portland, Oregon, and entering school there without knowing a word of English. The anti-Semitism he’d experienced in Russia followed him to Portland, and later to Yale; he always knew what it meant to be an outsider, which may partly account for his early figures’ alienation. His growing interest in dreams and myth in the 1940s was fueled by Freud’s and Jung’s theories, but he was also deeply affected by World War II. Discussing his use of myth in 1943, Rothko dismissed “those who think that the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring.” By 1942–though Rothko couldn’t have known the details–the Germans had murdered all but 400 of the 30,000 Jews in his Russian birthplace. He remembered the childhood uprooting that had saved his life as traumatic–he couldn’t “forgive this transplantation” to a land where he “never felt entirely at home.”

The progression of Rothko’s career was away from the local, the social; his quest was for universals. He abandoned his unindividuated early figures for mythic forms, seeking not “the particular anecdote,” he said, but “the Spirit of Myth.” Next he abandoned figuration entirely, creating dreamlike worlds that combined biomorphic and geometrical forms. Phalanx of the Mind (c. 1945) has no figures but in a way recalls his groups of people looking away from one another. In front of a mostly brown background with a gray “floor” stands what looks like a brown wooden screen; from its center diagonal lines, mostly black but with some gray and white, point in almost every direction. The title suggests divergent thoughts densely clustered together. As in so many of his pictures before 1946, the space seems claustrophobic, with the wooden screen butting against the background and most of the area filled with indecipherable shapes.

In 1946, perhaps not coincidentally after the war had ended, the space in Rothko’s pictures begins to open up and the colors grow more luminous. The central oblong shape of Memory (c. 1945/’46) is open at its center, seeming to float amid the smaller shapes around it. The converging lines of Phalanx of the Mind, which seem to confront the viewer with a hard-edged knot, are replaced by forms that seem to invite the viewer in.

The next step in Rothko’s development is more radical, though it occurred within the space of a year or so. Two paintings hung next to each other in this show clearly reveal the change. No. 18 (c. 1947) is like an abstracted underwater view, setting a clutter of biomorphic forms against a background of horizontal blue gray bands. The shapes themselves are wonderful, echoing, even interacting with each other; forms like shells and claws repeat, the lines on some suggesting ribbed surfaces. But the whole pictorial space is physically awkward, with like shapes heaped together almost gracelessly. The viewer is left to wander from one part of the painting to another, looking for rhythm, interrogating the images for meaning.

A year later, using abstract shapes with no obvious visual associations, Rothko finally made a picture that sings. In No. 20 (1948) a parade of dots across the lower center creates one rhythm; two areas of streaks near the top create another. Large pink rectangles abound, and in them the paint is at once luminous and transparent: the light shines out at the viewer, but if one looks closely, the paint seems thin, wispy, insubstantial, almost as if one could enter it. Rothko hasn’t yet fully orchestrated his diverse effects, but he has achieved something extraordinary: the parts seem to coexist as equals, floating with respect to one another but never colliding, as if each were in a different world. This gives them a curious power; each seems a unique being. Somehow the mythic and biomorphic forms have led to shapes charged with a nameless force. After commenting on the “incommunicability” of his own figures in 1947, Rothko wrote: “It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” And he went on to do it, achieving an extraordinary kind of pictorial freedom.

By losing the odd specificities of his solitary and mythic figures and later his biomorphic shapes, Rothko gained the possibility of something universal. The constricted spaces of the earlier works all seem–with the benefit of perfect hindsight–to be pointing beyond their lonely spaces or confining borders toward images like No. 23 (1948). Here even specific shapes like the dots in No. 20 are gone; almost the whole area is filled with soft-edged oblong and rectangular fields of color that seem less physical objects than floating metaphors for the unseen. “They are not pictures,” Rothko said of a later group of works; here one might almost say that these are not shapes. They pulsate, they float, they blend together, they separate again. Like living beings, they contain worlds of possibility. As Rothko wrote of abstract shapes in 1947, “They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion.”

With No. 25 (1951) we reach the kind of painting Rothko would pursue until his death. Most often his mature work contains three separate, floating rectangles, but here there are two that abut. The upper one is a pale orange, the lower a yellowish green; the background, a greenish yellow, almost blends in with the lower rectangle. Where the shapes meet, the yellow of the lower one grows particularly luminous, shining almost like a sunset. These forms–built up from many thin applications of paint to the canvas–at once rebuff with their light yet are filled with depth, glow and invite entry, and are light-filled yet voids. Rothko insisted that viewers moved only by his color relationships had missed the point: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions–tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” His nonmaterial forms, which exist as much in the viewer’s mind as on the canvas, make these multiple emotions seem possible.

As a boy in Dvinsk, Rothko received rigorous religious instruction from a very young age–learning Hebrew, reading the Torah and the Talmud–a strict study of texts that he abandoned in America. These early studies suggest an inspiration for his rectangles, most of them wider then they are high: set atop each other, they’re like lines of text–but empty, utterly devoid of specific forms. Liberated and liberating, they suggest the abandonment of both religious and pictorial traditions. Certainly Rothko’s interest in the rectangle predates 1951 (the backgrounds in many of the earlier works are horizontal colored bands, though their function is often merely decorative). James E.B. Breslin in his fascinating Rothko biography suggests two other sources for these simultaneously empty and full shapes. As a boy, Rothko often hiked the hills around Portland, looking down across the valley. He later talked about “the endless space of the landscape…the monumental emptiness that is nothingness and at the same time a part of ‘all.'” Rothko also recalled his family in Russia telling stories about a pogrom in which the Jews were forced to dig their own mass grave before they were slaughtered. A friend later recalled that Rothko had “always been haunted by the image of that grave, and…in some profound way it was locked into his painting.” Breslin points out that such a slaughter was less typical of czarist pogroms than of the Nazis, which raises the possibility that the rectangles are also a veiled, perhaps unconscious reference to the Holocaust. (The architect Louis Kahn, also Jewish, once planned a Holocaust memorial of huge translucent cubes). In fact one can plausibly bring many associations to these works, which in itself would make them hardly unique in modern art.

Rothko’s great achievement–the one that differentiates the last two works in this show, No. 25 (1951) and No. 26 (1970), from all the earlier paintings–is the way he redefines the relationship between viewer and work. In Nos. 1 through 24 the viewer perceives the painting as a separate entity with which he seeks to establish a relationship. He wonders about the strange beasts, he peers at the biomorphic forms and thinks of what they resemble, he examines the many parts of No. 20 to discern their rhythms. But in No. 25, with its two rectangles almost merging, such distinctions collapse. The viewer no longer experiences the picture as a separate entity; rather, as Rothko once wrote, “You are in it.” This is not like a drug-induced collapse of the viewer’s identity: one is always free to disengage, to think about what one has seen. But approach the light again, those disembodied forms on their disembodied surface, and their glow fills the inner eye; they take their place alongside or even replace images in the mind. Rothko offers a genuinely mystical experience, of thought becoming light and light becoming thought, infused with the precision of art.