Volume IV, Number 2, Fall 2008

"Safe Landings: Pollock and Rothko" by Éva Gyetvai

Éva Gyetvai is a research student in English at the University of Exeter. Email: eg255@exeter.ac.uk

I can control the flow of the paint … There is no accident.
Jackson Pollock

A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.
Mark Rothko

In short, the requirement is that we shall think things as they are themselves, not make them into objects constructed by thinking.
John Dewey

Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Exodus 20: 4

‘I merely observe that this is a quantum Universe and, as such, what happens is neither random nor determined. There are potentialities and any third factor – humans are such a factor – will affect the outcome.’ ‘And free will?’ ‘Is your capacity to affect the outcome.’
Jeanette Winterson

New York, New York

When, in 1951, Life magazine published The Irascibles, a group portrait of fifteen New York abstract expressionists protesting against the anti-modernist acquisition policy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), few could have guessed that in 1957, MET would pay thirty thousand dollars for a Pollock (Autumn Rhythm) that had stayed unsold for seventy-five dollars at the Betty Parson’s Gallery Show in 1950. In the photograph, a group of middle-aged males in tweed jackets, ties and well-polished shoes are posing. Jackson Pollock is sitting in the middle; next to him are Clyfford Still and Robert Motherwell. The three of them are said to have generated the abstract expressionist movement: Motherwell being its intellectual and Pollock its charismatic hallmark while Still inspiring both Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman aesthetically. Here, in the middle row, are also Richard Posuette-Dart, William Baziotes, and Bradley Tomlin. In the top row Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, and Hedda Sterne, the only female included, are standing. In the bottom row, there are Theodore Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, and Mark Rothko sitting nonchalantly.

These leisurely posing stylish painters, among them Pollock and Rothko, began their career in the 1930s. This paper will try to show that in addition to formal painterly education as well as interests in European art, both Pollock and Rothko grew up and learned their vocation in an American natural, social and creative spatial-temporal setting, which had made a difference in their art compared with and contrasted to their European contemporaries painting expressionist pictures in the abstract modes in the 1940s and 1950s. Just as John Dewey’s instrumental pragmatism and the ideals of the New Deal, American Scene Painting also had its impression on their art. The 18-year-old Pollock studied with Thomas Hart Benton in Benton’s Life Drawing, Painting, and Composition class at the Art Students League from 1930 (Frank 5); where Rothko had already participated in Max Weber’s still-life class and in Milton Avery’s weekly drawing session from 1926 through 1929. The European influence on these masters and disciples, yet, cannot be denied. While Avery had had his apprenticeship in Fauvism, Weber and Benton were more skilled in Cubism. When Pollock had sketchbooks full of sketches after Picasso’s Guernica and El Greco’s The Annunciation, Rothko painted in the manner of Cézanne in the late 1920s–early 1930s, and produced Homage to Matisse in 1954.

In the American Grain: Art as Life-Experience

When the paintings of these so-called Abstract Expressionists were first shown in Europe in the 1950s, European critics often commented on them as peculiarly American. Robert Rosenblum in “What Is American about American Art” sums up the main tenets of these critical reactions.

A toughness and crudity of paint handling that spoke of traditions less suave and hedonistic than those familiar to French painting; a rejection, either through intention or incompetence, of the more harmonious compositional conventions common to European painting. (Rosenblum 11)

Similar notions about Abstract Expressionist painting recalling the vocabulary of the Frontier experience – such as toughness and crudity – are echoed in a recent Taschen publication on twentieth century art. In a chapter subtitled fittingly as “America Overcomes Europe,” Karl Ruhrberg describes Pollock’s artistic vision and technique in Max Ernst’s words as

“controlled chance” … Pollock’s paintings, in which chance and principle converge, in which the vital recklessness of the frontier pioneer meets the neurotic vulnerability of civilized man, are not projections but manifestations of life. (Ruhrberg 273)

In controlled chance painting, the crucial factor is the artist’s ability to combine spontaneity with a sense of form to make “a lyrical statement of the highest subtlety” – explains further Ruhrberg (273 – 274). Pollock’s Ocean Grayness, for instance, displays a fascinating imagery that implies the unimaginable complexity and energy of some phenomena of nature, viewed through either a microscope or a telescope. Ocean Grayness, a picture of churning, watery whirlpools, bears out this orderly disorder of nature and the fearful dynamics of living organisms in full pictorial, emotional force.

To call Pollock’s painting suitably a controlled chance operation is to paraphrase John Dewey’s idea of art as life-experience as both processes seem to combine spontaneity with a sense of form. In “Art as Experience,” Dewey criticizes the splits between aesthetic experience and ordinary life, between art and everyday objects, and between creation and appreciation. As he claims, these dualisms are without basis in actual life-experience. As such, they give rise to artificial problems that divert the attention and energies from doing one’s own thing, for example painting. In “Art as Experience,” Dewey identifies art with experience that has a certain purposeful, integrated, unified quality. This art–experience concept, for Dewey, provides the basis for recovering the continuity between objects of art and everyday objects, and between aesthetic experience and daily living. In “Experience and Philosophic Method,” Dewey characterizes experience as (1) eventful, active, precarious, and hazardous; (2) continuous; (3) historical; (4) qualitative; (5) experimental and practical; and (6) meaningful (460–470). In “Art as Experience,” Dewey further asserts:

Esthetic experience is always more than esthetic. In it a body of matters and meanings, not in themselves esthetic, become esthetic as they enter into an ordered rhythmic movement toward consummation. … The material of esthetic experience in being human – human in connection with the nature of which it is part – is social. Esthetic experience is a manifestation, a record of the celebration of life of a civilization, a means of promoting development, and is also the ultimate judgment upon the quality of a civilization. (Stuhr 442–443)

In linking aesthetic experience with growth, Dewey connects it with the evolution of society. Growth is a notion central to his work in education, and his views on education are central to his writings on democracy, community, and the nature of philosophy itself. Dewey defines growth as the progress of action toward a later result, and stresses that, as such, growth does not have an end but rather is an end. Accordingly, the educational process, just as the creative process, is one of continual reconstruction and self-transformation directed at no end beyond itself. In this sense, education is key to a democratic society, therefore “such society must have a type of education, which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure “social changes without introducing disorder,” as he puts it in “Democracy and Education” (Stuhr 441). Dewey’s “social changes without introducing disorder” can easily be conceived of in terms of Pollock’s painting process based on “controlled chance” because they both seem to share the vital dynamics of the participants’ capabilities of combining spontaneity with a sense of form.

One may as well ask where and how the phenomenon of “controlled chance” exists in Rothko’s art. What may the chance element be in his precise, intense work of applying thin layers of diluted oil paint? The chance factor for Rothko was light and a belief that art, creation, is a process that becomes through eruptions of “the wild.” Here is a great paragraph from Barbara Novak and Brian O’Doherty’s essay, “Mark Rothko’s Painting: Tragedy and Void.” The passage explores the question of the unmanageable behavior of a painting due to light modulations.

Most artists scrutinize their work to make sure it is near their intention. Rothko, however, emphasized this process to the point of self-harassment. When he was seated before the work, subjecting it to his habitual hypnotic stare, he studied how the waxing and waning light veiled and unveiled incident, content, and moods that appeared like so many chimeras. He gave the impression … that painting, particularly if it was dark painting, was unknowable, and unknowable precisely because he could not foresee or experience the infinite complexions of the painting as it equivocated in different lights. Rothko’s concentration at such times filled every part of the silent studio. The intensity of his gaze shaped itself into a form of listening and vice versa. (Novak and O’ Doherty 4)

Both Rothko and Pollock apparently believed in immersion in painting, meaning that the cumulative effect of their paintings when considered together is a sense of total and active involvement of all participants in the process of creation: painter, painting, and observer included. For them, the making of a picture did not mean the purposeful end of an activity but it rather meant the making it all: an activity in which the controlling wrist of the insightful painter is as influential as the perceiving eye and soul of the sensitive observer. This vision of painting (product and process) as a living creature that grows and expands by embracing both the painter and the viewer in the painting without entrapping either is very much in the American grain in the Deweyan sense of art as growth, where growth itself is a never-ending life-experience.

In addition to the possible intellectual imprint of Dewey’s pluralist democracy and instrumental pragmatism as leading educational, cultural, political and aesthetic ideas and practices in the 1920s and 1930s, American landscape, its natural vastness and beauty, and its sense of limitless space could have made a lasting impact on Pollock’s and Rothko’s artistic visions and techniques then coming of age. Harold Rosenberg in his groundbreaking essay on “action painters” has a point in saying, “[t]he American vanguard painter took to the expanse of the canvas as Melville’s Ishmael took to the sea” (50). Similarly, when discussing Rothko, Ruhrberg retells the story of how Rothko’s sense of indeterminate space in which his rectangular bands and blocks of colors float was born by his experiencing the expansive, open Oregonian countryside. The artist found himself engulfed within the seemingly endless space of Oregon landscape, which gave him “the sense that his own ego had vanished.”

From a high vantage point Rothko looked out over an empty landscape covered with fog. In the milky veil that spread out through space, in this void of earth and mist, there suddenly appeared a tiny dot – a car. Rothko was overcome by a feeling of his own meaninglessness. He never forgot this experience and his feeling. (Ruhrberg 290)

Pollock grew up on truck farms in California, where he worked in the fields. He often recalled his love of earth, open space, animals, and plants: all growing things (Frank 11). He was well aware of some American Indian art techniques in the West, too:

My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the canvas unstretched to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West. (Janson 974)

In an interview published in Arts and Architecture, he admits that his Totem Lesson 1 and Totem Lesson 2, exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in 1945 show features inherent in Indian art of the West. He declares, “the Indians have the true painter’s approach in their capacity to get hold of appropriate images, and in their understanding of what constitutes painterly subject-matter” (Frank 55). In the same breath, he also remarks: references to Indian motifs and techniques, however, were not “intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasms” (Frank 55).

Without suggesting Rothko and Pollock go down art history as direct heirs to American Scene painters – who were very much aware of America’s vast natural presence and whose socially sensitive art tended to express a sense of bittersweet Manifest Destiny as played out by the lowest dogs of US society – they were the children of America nevertheless. As Rosenblum puts it, “the dramas of American nature and American passions are played against each other” (31) in a Rothko or a Pollock in the good old tradition of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Heade, Eakins, Homer, Hopper, Benton, and Avery.

Art historians tend to regard tachisme (paint-stain painting) and l’art informel (gestural painting) as mid-century European equivalents to Abstract Expressionism in the United States in the post Second World War era (Ruhrberg 231). However, one cannot help noticing an element of immediate threat, dread, horror, and fearful ugliness in Jean Fautrier’s Tormented Man, Wols’s The Blue Phantom, and Fred Thieler’s Signal that is less evident in the American Sam Francis’s or Robert Motherwell’s works, who may be the closest to their European peers. In contrast to the American man-and-nature drama paradigm, one could thus say that the dramas of European history and fears are played against each other in most of European expressionist pictures in the abstract modes in the 1940s and 1950s. Fautrier’s Otages (The Hostages), for instance, present victims of human cruelty with irregular but not amorphous human forms and remains of dismembered, decaying bodies. In addition to Fautrier, Wols and Thieler, Jean Dubuffet, Henry Michaux and Hans Hartung are some other representative figures of the arts autre (Ruhrberg 219–268, Janson 848–849). As if the life experience of these European artists maturing and living-and-dying in the fiendish 1930s and 1940s of Europe had generated a more horrible art with less consolation than that of their counterparts born and/or raised around the same time in the United States. When Rothko – who was ten years old when his immigrant Jewish family from Russia finally reunited in Portland, Oregon in 1913 – insists that “tragic experience is the only source book for art” (Baal–Teshuva 17) and when the American-born, Californian-raised and New York-educated Pollock from Presbyterian Scottish-Irish stock says that the source of his panting is the unconscious, neither of them could have spoken from the kind of intimate life threatening experience of Fascism, the Wars and the Holocaust Thieler and Fautrier had had. And, it shows. While Rothko was trying to make his paintings into experiences of Nietzschean tragedy and ecstasy to express the “essence of universal human drama” (Baal-Teshuva 17 and Novak and O’Doherty 2–4) and Pollock entered into a playful though controlled dramatic dialogue with/within his paintings taking an “easy give and take” chance at them, Europeans were actually living through, recovering from, and mourning over the most concrete, tangible, blood-stained war dramas over which they had no chance of control and which they had just escaped by the skin of their teeth. We see tormented, distorted, human remnants in the timid l’art brut canvases of Fautrier and Thieler. These lyrical abstract pictures could never be as purely abstracted formally and as universally expressive thematically as Rothko’s and Pollock’s dramatically abstract expressionist paintings. Morsels and chunks of aching flesh show through in them. No wonder Fautrier denied the possibility of a purely form-centered, universally abstract art in war-ridden Europe:

No form of art can depict feelings if a piece of reality is not included in it. No matter how tiny, how imperceptible this suggestion may be, this irreducible part is like the key to the work. It makes it readable, it illuminates its meaning, it opens the deep, essential reality of the aesthetic perception, which is true intelligence. (Ruhrberg 253)

I, therefore, must disagree with William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff’s claim put forward in New York Modern: The Arts and the City about the New York abstract expressionists’ reasons for painting the way they did. Scott and Rutkoff propose that

at the time when few willingly addressed the tragedies of World War II and the horrors of Dachau and Hiroshima, American abstract expressionist confronted them directly. Finding visual realism too literal to communicate their sense of horror and sublime, New York’s abstract expressionists resorted to radically nonrepresentational images. (Scott and Rutkoff 290–291)

In my opinion, however miserable Pollock, Baziotes, Motherwell, or Rothko may have felt, their mind-set and psyche must have been the result of some sort of self-made, self-inflicted suffering or pain. They simply had not had the experience of “the tragedies of World War II and the horrors of Dachau and Hiroshima.” What they had instead is what in Essay in Experimental Logic Dewey warns against: “objects constructed by thinking” (Stuhr 437), that is, conceptual simulacra of universal human tragedy.

This possible lack of blood-and-flesh struggle for life – the lack of meaningful experience, the sense of vast emptiness, the solitude that grips one’s throat and squeezes it while looking at a Hopper – perhaps exactly this “bare and lonely emotional skeleton” of America, this “dour mood of lonely human presences that reaches out to nowhere” in Homer’s Long Branch (Rosenblum 18) was equally instrumental in the evolution of American Abstract Expressionism. Rosenberg’s early insights about an artist’s “private Dark Nights” as opposed to the artist “as a battleground of history” may serve as an appropriate addition here.

If the war and the decline of radicalism in America had to do with this sudden impatience, there is no evidence of it. About the effects of large issues upon their emotions, Americans tend to be either reticent or unconscious. The French artist thinks of himself as a battleground of history; here one hears only private Dark Nights.

Based on the phenomenon of conversion the new movement is, with the majority of the painters, essentially a religious movement. In almost every case, however, the conversion has been experienced in secular terms. The result has been the creation of private myths.
The tension of the private myth is the content of every painting of this vanguard.

Some formulate their myth verbally and connect individual works with its episodes. With others, usually deeper, the painting itself is the exclusive formulation, a Sign. (Rosenberg)

These speculations appear more relevant especially in the company of the European parallels discussed above.

Just as Fautrier objected to be labeled a l’art informel painter, Rothko ferociously refused to be called an abstractionist one in the late 1950s. Art history books usually make the point that Rothko, just as Pollock, saw his forms as having life of their own, something beyond material boundaries, though. Many claim that he believed in the metaphysical power of colors. Biographer James Breslin quotes him say: “My art is not abstract, it lives and breathes” (Baal-Teshuva 50). Regardless of what they thought of their own art, Pollock’s and Rothko’s classical works have yet been catalogued as abstract expressionist paintings because of their employment of mostly non-representational imagery in order to convey their emotions and to recreate them for the viewer directly through color and form. A few painters of The New York School, such as the Dutch-born William de Kooning, continued to use recognizable images in the 1950s and thereafter. As de Kooning’s Woman 1 and Barnett Newman’s Adam may illustrate this uneven preference, most of them, though, did not. What, then, did they do?

Energy Made Visible: An American in New York

Art historians commonly group American Abstract Expressionists’ diverse styles into two modes: one relying primarily on the artist’s physical creative gestures (gestural, or action painting) and the other one relying on color (tonal, or color field painting). Pollock’s Lavender Mist and One, Number 31 may embody action painting. Their intricate interlace was created by a bold though accurate physical technique of flinging paint that put the artist “in the painting,” as Pollock describes his method in “My Painting” (Kostelanetz 202, Ruhrberg 270, Janson 974). Pollock spread rather than stretched his canvases flat on the floor and poured, dripped, and flung the paints onto them while moving all around them. In this way, the entire creative-and-receptive process became part of the picture. He used a combination of oil, enamel, and aluminum paint. The colors and tones dripped out of cans and layered on top of one another created a dense jungle of lines, recession and depth, which makes the paintings perceived as three-dimensional and organic. Both the artist’s and the viewer’s experience is thus somewhat spatial because it involves immersion on part of the spectator and the artist alike. The effect Pollock created is remarkable because as one looks at, for example, One, Number 31, the flat painted surface seems to move forward, grow around and surround the spectator. This sensation of being engulfed and cuddled can be even greater when a lucky one is standing so close to these huge canvases that their edges cannot be seen clearly.

Harold Rosenberg, the actual godfather of the movement, first describes this creative process in “The American Action Painters.”

A good painting in this mode leaves no doubt concerning its reality as an action and its relaxation to transforming process in the artist. The canvas has ‘talked back’ to the artist not to quiet him with Sibylline murmurs nor to stun him with Dionysian outcries but to provoke him into a dramatic dialogue. Each stroke had to be a decision and was answered by a new question. By its very nature, action painting is painting in the medium of difficulties. (Rosenberg)

It is very important to repeat with Rosenberg that Pollock was aware of his ‘unconscious painting’, i.e. the process being “controlled chance.” He knew the materials he used: he chose them in accordance to their behavior when applied together. He was in an alert call-and-response relationship with his work. Pollock’s genius resided precisely in his ability to convert the dripping into breathing, living, balanced creatures rather than into chaos.

An ongoing research at MoMA also seems to confirm that “there is a great deal of consciousness, balance, use of materials, and craft, that frees him to make as apparently unconsciously as he does” – says chief conservator James Coddington. The researchers named their essay written on what they had found after a real life incident in 1950. In the November 20th issue of Time magazine in 1950, an unsympathetic critic quoted Bruno Alfieri describing Pollock’s work as “unmeaning chaos” in an article entitled “Chaos, Damn It” (Friedman 158). Pollock fired off this telegram, which was published in the December 11th issue of Time:


That “most exciting part” left out was a comparison between Pollock and Picasso that favored Pollock (Frank 179). Paul Falkenberg and Hans Namuth had just filmed that „busy painting” with Pollock’s simple narration in September and October 1950. One is let to watch him paint. His movements are delicate, even gracious: but not trans-like, rehearsed, or routine. The swift eye-to-hand movements reveal a sense of immediate, intuitive decision-making process that yields spontaneity and directness of action. After the MoMA screening on June 14, 1951, Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting.”

The revolution against the given, in the self and in the world … has re-entered America in the form of personal revolts. Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating. (Rosenberg)

The figure of the acting artist suddenly became the center of creation. Lavender Mist, figuring on the cover of the French–American fashion magazine Vogue in 1951, also signaled the Paris–New York shift in the art world. Public attention turned its scrutinizing eye toward the painter instead of the painting. Pollock became the Ur-artist figure of the 1950s: an American in New York.

Visual Silence: Void and Infinity as Life-Experience

Pollock’s twitchy, sweaty gestural paintings are record of his creative process and the tension incorporated in every single stroke. They are the direct expressions of his emotions and the actions of his genuine struggle rather than illustrations of or meditation over them. Although through floating shapes, subtle, gentle brushwork, and color modulations, Rothko’s tonal painting evokes a range of emotions, from joy to apprehension; his meditative and silent pictures express the painter’s contemplation rather than his action. The evanescent, hazy rectangles of color in Rothko’s Untitled from 1949 and the Black on Maroon series from 1958 may demonstrate the second mode widely recognized within Abstract Expressionism: color field painting. Artists associated with this style preferred creating fields of rich even color and large simplified shapes to expressing a sense of emotion and the unconscious through signature brushstrokes and gestural painting (Tobler 506).

In the large Seagram Dining Hall murals, Rothko used a warm palette of dark red and brown tones. In this Black on Maroon, the two purple oblongs appear like two openings in the center of the picture. As one looks at them, one can feel they could go through them into another world, or, rather, the Afterworld. The size of the picture also gives the feeling of moving into it and beyond it. Then again, these two purple oblongs can appear to float in relation to the black sections. Both the black and the purple are painted over a color field of maroon. The edges of the shapes are soft and blurred, which contributes to their ambiguity. Are they openings or are they floating on the surface? Stained-glass windows come to mind except that there is no pattern or decoration. The purple is thinly painted and the maroon background shows through. The black edges to the extreme right and left are blurred against the maroon so that the whole picture can appear like a black window frame with space beyond. None of these meanings are certain.

These paintings, however, would certainly not fit with a materialistic appetite for thought. One drops silent by looking at the black on maroon and the deep red and orange on maroon Seagram murals standing in front of them, or in fact, being surrounded by them at the Tate Modern Gallery in London, where nine of the black ones are exhibited on their own. (I see people standing and talking in hushed voices as if they were in a place of worship.) The maroon shade dominates and the spectators cannot help feeling the power of color, shape, and size influencing their mood and spirit. The magnificent deep red and orange on maroon Seagram murals, seven of which are also exhibited at the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Chiba-Ken in Japan, as one hopes, would have “[ruined] the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in [the Seagram restaurant],” as Rothko confided his wish in John Fisher, the then publisher of Harper’s Magazine on their voyage to Europe aboard SS Independence (Steward 32). Rothko, however, cancelled the Seagram commission in 1959 and the murals scattered all around the world, only to gather in tranquil rooms of their own again. Remarkably, curators tend to install these huge Rothkos in confined spaces.

The cultural critic David Craven, perhaps in an attempt to embed Rothko’s art in the cultural history of the US Cold War era, claims that Rothko cancelled the Seagram commission because of his working class sympathies and because “Rothko tuned his paintings to stand as negations of a certain cultural and moral world” (Craven 53). The event is discussed in a chapter entitled “Abstract Expressionism and Left-Wing Discourse” in a book that bears the name of Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique. I, however, cannot believe Rothko painted out of an urge to “negate” or to criticize the Cold War ridden United States, its political establishment, or its rich. Neither do I think his cancellation of the Seagram assignment was the embodiment of any left-wing discourse or anarchism, as Craven argues (53-55). I rather picture Rothko as a this-worldly rabbi: an eager, hardworking man who sometimes loses his temper because nobody cares to understand or believe in what he is really doing. I agree with those who have seen his paintings as abstract icons rather than political banners.

Houston, Texas

The lack of spirituality rather than class struggle caused Rothko to cancel the Seagram commission in 1959. Perhaps the most convincing evidence of this is his enthusiasm over the de Menils commission to create a series of large wall murals and panels for a chapel dedicated to all confessions in Houston. The multi-millionaire de Menils planned to build the chapel for St. Thomas Catholic University in Houston, where Dominique de Menil was the director of the Art Department. When John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Rothko in 1963, he responded:

The magnitude on every level of experience and meaning of the task in which you involved me, exceeds all my preconceptions, and it is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible for me. For this, I thank you (Quotes).

He told his friends that this would become his most important artistic statement. He took an active part in designing the building and moved into a studio in Manhattan that was as tall as the chapel would be. Due to disagreement with Rothko, architect Philip Johnson had to even resign, and two new architects who were ready to follow Rothko’s instructions were appointed: Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry (Baal-Teshuva 73). Barnett Newman’s sculpture, Broken Obelisk was erected in 1969 in the middle of a rectangular pool reflecting the chapel, the obelisk, and the natural environment. The Obelisk commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated one year earlier. Neither Rothko nor Newman lived to participate in the dedication of the ecumenical chapel on January 26, 1971, exactly one year after Rothko’s suicide.

Today the place is the Institute of Religion and Human Development, the chapel is called The Rothko Chapel, and people gather there to pray and meditate. Unlike the task to decorate the exclusive Four Season Restaurant in the Seagram Building, the making of the chapel was a kind of vocation that could motivate an artist for whom painting was a sacred communal experience, an act of immersion and communion, and who also wanted to involve spectators in the same experience. In the Selden Rodman interview, Rothko openly states his spiritual outlook on painting:

You might as well get one thing straight. I’m not an abstractionist. … I’m not interested in the relationship of color to form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point. (Baal-Teshuva 57)

Rothko painted huge pictures; many of them were about 3 meters high. His wish was to use the proportions of the painting to create the feeling that the viewer was actually inside the picture, thus achieving a state of physical–emotional, aesthetic–spiritual communion with it and its implications. When he was asked to talk at a seminar at MoMA on “How to Combine Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture”, he made the following statement.

I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them – I think it applies to other painters I know – is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command. (Novak and O’Doherty 28)

Rothko’s insistence on the large paintings hung as close to the floor as feasible and that the ideal distance for looking at his large paintings is 45 centimeters lend another religious–spiritual aspect to his work. In this way, viewers would feel themselves drawn into the field of color – experiencing the pictures’ inner movement and the absence of clear borders – and feel awe (fearful admiration) for what could not be understood.

London, England

I have safely landed at the Tate Modern in London. I am looking at a photograph (Elkan) taken of Rothko working in his studio sometime in 1953. He is standing calmly in front of one of his huge untitled canvases, stroking its surface delicately, even graciously with a tiny paintbrush applying thin layers of diluted paint. Surrounded by the overpowering Seagram murals, I stand still recalling Monique de Menil’s 1971 dedication speech at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. She is speaking about the drama of nothing and everything: void and infinity as life-experience. Then, a recollection of Pollock’s “sun dancing” in and out of his painting diverts my attention from Rothko. Except for John Graham’s ideas (“Primitive Art and Picasso”), Pollock was not interested in theory. When, in 1942, the renowned painter–educator Hans Hofmann invited him to enroll in his school to learn how to paint from nature, Pollock replied with a strikingly American accent: “I’m nature.” Then, he went on: “Your theories don’t interest me – put up or shut up! Let’s see your work” (Frank 39).

New York, New York

In their manifesto published as early as 1943 in an attempt to explain Newman’s art depreciated in the New York Times, Gottlieb and Rothko made clear that “there is no such thing as good painting about nothing” (Steward 24). Even so, both Rothko’s and Pollock’s conceptual and highly personal art with its tendencies to universalize the particular led many viewers to overlook its content and message, thus reducing their monumental “wall paintings” (often murals) to fashionable and expensive “wallpapers:” décor fine for swanky restaurants and fashion magazine cover images. In the late 1950s, younger New York painters’ – like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – images of cans, flags, targets, and jet fighters returned New York painting to the details of daily life, making the content of their work more obvious. When, after Pollock’s death in 1956, wealthy art collectors and enthusiastic museum curators had just began to go crazy about buying a piece of Abstract Expressionist art (a Pollock, for instance), the City was falling for such Pop artists as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

Works Cited

  • “No Chaos, Damn It:” An Interview with James Coddington, Chief Conservator at MoMA.” 2004. 22 Dec. 2007 Museum of Modern Art. http://www.moma.org/collection/conservation/pollock/interview1.html.
  • “Quotes about The Rothko Chapel.” The Rothko Chapel. 4 Jan. 2008 http://rothkochapel.org/quotes.htm.
  • Acton, Mary. 2004. Learning to Look at Modern Art. London: Routledge.
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