Mark Rothko’s later paintings: To me, the most spiritual thing about Mark Rothko is the development of his later art, the paintings he is most famous for—the rectangles of translucent colors floating over a background of a single color or two. Every time I look at them, I get a sense of meditation. I get the impression he thought of them somewhat that way, even as spiritual expression.
Ottmann’s tiny book, The Essential Mark Rothko, outlines the biography of a Jewish boy born in Russia, whose family moved to Portland, Oregon. His father died when Mark was quite young. He grew up in poverty. He was very bright—got into Yale University, which he left when it became unaffordable. He wanted to get into theater more than art, at first, but later became enthralled with painting. He had minimal instruction in technique; he was mostly self-taught. He moved to New York, which his where his artistic career took off. He started doing paintings of people and things like subway scenes. He later got interested in mythology and did a bunch of mythologic paintings. Most of his early work seems easily forgettable, to me. It wasn’t until he was in his 40s that he began doing his wonderful floating rectangles, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. Bright colors gradually gave way to dark colors, to blacks on grays toward the end. Meanwhile, he got married, divorced, and married again. He had kids. People say he was charming and that he could be generous, but it sounds like he was also a huge control freak and could be a real pain in the ass. Like most artists I’ve read about, he doesn’t sound like someone I would have liked to be around. He suffered a great deal from depression. During the last year of his life, he wasn’t getting along with his wife, and they separated. He ended his life by slashing his arms and letting the blood flow out.
One of his last big projects was painting panels for a chapel in Houston, Texas, now known as the Rothko Chapel. It sounds like Rothko had a great deal of spiritual feeling, although it’s not clear to me what this meant for him. I get most of the sense of it from looking at his paintings.
Can a painting evoke spiritual experience? Apart from Rothko’s paintings, art works that have especially overwhelmed me with their spiritual depictions include several sculptures by the Italian Renaissance artist Bernini: The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Apollo and Daphne, and the Rape of Persephone. These are full of horror, pain, and ecstasy.
• St. Theresa lies down in sprawled ecstasy, facing a little angel boy who gazes at her with a smile that looks both cruel and compassionate. He has just stabbed her with an arrow.
• Apollo watches with horror as the woman he has been chasing starts turning into a tree.
• Persephone’s face shows terror and a strange sensual excitement as the male god captures her and drags her off to his underworld kingdom.
Rothko’s spirituality, if that’s what it was he was showing in his paintings, is also a dark meditation. His canvases gradually became darker and darker as his life went on. Many people like to think of spiritual experience as warm and uplifting, but what Rothko portrayed seems to me also a very valid depiction of spiritual experience.
Klaus Ottmann. The Essential Mark Rothko. New York: The Wonderland Press/Harry N. Abrams Inc. 2003.
What do you think?
© Brother Greg 6/4/10