From Myth to Music to Stillness: The Work of Mark Rothko

by Ashley Eldridge-Ford

The most fascinating and most telling feature of Rothko's later work, of which I predominantly write, is that it has the ability to make people from every walk of life think of entirely different things and to feel entirely different emotions. Once someone is given free reign to know what they are not searching for (literal images, shapes and thus associations with which to read the pieces), emotion is created and they have the opportunity to venture inside themselves and to feel‚ unhindered, led only by the simplicity and purity of his work. In doing this, viewers bring forth all their joy, pleasure and fears, good experiences and bad to discover the stillness or silence within the work and within oneself. Rothko's work is like a souvenir one takes home from a trip abroad allowing one to return to the moment of purchase and be flooded with all of the memories of the trip (one's life).

In a manifesto published in 1935 Rothko states that art is an adventure into an unknown world and that it is the job of the artist to make the viewer see art from the artists point of view. Rothko held the idea that the simple is able to express a complex thought and that a large picture space is able to create a strong impact and flatness destroy an illusion and reveal truth. He used art as a portrait of an idea and as the language of the spirit, especially his own and that of his contemporaries in the inter-war and post-war period.

At the very beginning of Rothko's career, prior to his complete abstraction, he was involved with various artistic discussion groups such as The Ten (1935) and The Art of This Century group (1946)), in which they debated ways in which to express their true Self and the various issues arising at those times. Although he was a very social man, voluble and well read in his discussions and opinions, Rothko never felt entirely at peace in the real world where he soon tired of the criticisms and judgements of his contemporaries and lost interest in the ability of words to express his ideas.

Amongst art circles in New York in the 1930s there was a resurrection and renewed interest in ancient myth and the parallel drawn between contemporary and the antique. Rothko was always in search of the sober grandeur of ancient Greece from which to create a framework to control his passions, to eliminate "all obstacle between the painter and the idea, between the idea and observer". He named memory, history and geometry as obstacles as they create generalizations from which one can take out the "ghost of an idea, not the idea itself". It is in the subsequent clarity and purity of the idea itself that Rothko is able to move the viewer to "understand" and not to rely upon explanations. Standing before his painting was to follow Nicolas Calas's suggestion that "One should listen to the stillness of painting with the awe with which one listens to the silence of the desert and glaciers". In 1945 Rothko made the discovery of light within the canvas itself; he had begun to use watercolour and watercolour paper and discovered the different effects he could create. Perhaps it reminded Rothko of the illusion of luminous light which the ancients imagined surrounding gods when they returned to the earth.

This led Rothko, in the late 1940s, to Pompeii and to his last phase of painting. Rothko said it was his wish to raise painting to a level that held the poignancy of poetry and music. After his search for the silence of various time periods and artists, he found it in the Pompeian frescoes and Greek and Roman antiquities. Rothko's deep-seated need to control his own experience of time, which he had always felt never fitted in conventional terms, and his own "Russianess" and tendency to melancholic soul-searching and moodiness, also led him to the works of Nietzsche.

Rothko had identified as a young man with Nietzsche's own dissonance in being man and in needing an illusion to hide the dissonance. Nietzsche's "veil" was beauty and the return to Greek tragedy, which embodied both that dissonance in being man and the beauty needed to hide it. Shakespeare too was to soothe Rothko's own search for his destiny, and his exploration into the disharmony of himself and mankind, especially after the Second World War. In post-war Europe, a world very different from that in America, art had retained a more refined vein. The Americans discovered that even after all the breakthroughs they were making in their own country, the main thinkers and critics were to be found in Europe where tradition reigned. They thus followed developments in an attempt to erase, perhaps, their feeling of slight inferiority when in comparison to the great artists of the past who worked on the other side of the Atlantic.

However, in France and other parts of Europe, Rothko found a receptive and understanding audience as the main thinkers and literati were exploring the very same themes as those in America and, most importantly for Rothko, those he explored himself.

Twenty years after Rothko first began his exploration of Nietzsche, the French had resurrected the great writer and his ideas. The search into the nature of space and human drama and how man inhabits and interprets it was reflected in Rothko's work. He brought with him the freedom and abandon of American artists (considered by Newman to be barbarians‚ in comparison to European painters) who came "closer to the sources of tragic emotion". In the Pompeian frescoes Rothko had found a mixture of calm, silence and harmony for which the artists of the time were searching, influenced by the ideas of Nietzsche. The faded colours on the Pompeian walls gave testimony to the time which had passed, a vital measuring stick and something consoling for Rothko. He had always associated art with the drama of the theatre. The frescoes represented a backdrop for the theatre of every day life that had taken place within the walls. Freed at this point from the artistic circles in New York and the false sense of security they gave to one another in their tight confines, Rothko finally found himself and his discovery of the transcendental experience became possible. In Europe they had understood in Rothko's paintings in Mallarmé's questioning of the void, the absence of all things, the idea of oneself as the starting point of all things amidst nothingness.

Rothko was also deeply affected by music in his search for solace and a connection with something greater than mankind. Through music Rothko felt himself one with the universe, that great void, no longer having to fight within the constraints of the every day world and society. He found within himself the music and himself within the music and was able later to capture on canvas that complete harmony and distance from the dissonance of man.

Reading Nietzsche's first book The Birth of Tragedy (Out of the Spirit of Music), Rothko associated himself with Nietzsche's Dionysian in whom the spirit of music was felt and restored man to nature. Through his paintings Rothko creates a much discussed universal language, like that of music, through which, according to Nietzsche, the primal universe could speak through the artist. Like musical interruptions, Rothko's use of brushstrokes and colors are able to increase or decrease an atmosphere.

I believe that to enter into the void that Rothko sets before one it is necessary to arm oneself with one's obstacles. Once inside the peace and richness of his composition and colors one can set them free. In so doing one sets oneself free to roam and float in the realm of the pure idea and the peace of the universe, speaking with the voices of those gone and those yet to come. Those who stand before a Rothko are moved by forces unexplainable to them and yet are so familiar. Through every thought, every smile, tear, every wrinkle on the face, hair on their head, they will both add to and detract from, the very essence of his painting.

Standing before these non-judgmental works is like being in an empty court room without a jury, yet with all the sense of being in an austere magisterial space and all it stands for and all that has occurred within its walls; it is like taking part in every fantasy one has ever imagined, like walking through a midnight gallery completely naked and reveling in the secrecy and freedom in being somewhere hallowed without an ounce of inhibition or guilt. Rothko creates a world in which one can take all one's secrets, all impure thoughts and wishes, all the words left unspoken. A universe where all the actions left undone, all the regrets harbored, the tears not dared shed, the smiles suppressed and all the joys experienced, to surface and float within his colors on canvas. The dreams one dares to not make reality and long for, the difference in life one may wish for, the unexpressed Self, and all good intentions can be looked at as pieces of art in themselves, one's own creations. His world is one where no one else can enter, judge, comment upon or disturb. As the viewer gazes uninterrupted at the purity and lucidity of his work, they can feel replenished and cleansed, uplifted and inspired. His work seems to evoke every positive and negative image within those who pass by; the colors seem to darken or lighten, the shapes expand or contract under the influence of the spectators look and thoughts. The very heart of his work is self-exploration and a deep and entire understanding of himself and his destiny.


About Rothko, Dore Ashton, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1983

Gallery Design by
Mike McCaffrey and Mark Katzman

2001 Artzar - All Rights Reserved.