An interesting place to begin my personal commentary on Mark Rothko is to connect him to someone else whose work I love. If you read far enough back in this blog you’ll discover (or remember) that I love the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Interestingly, according to Seymour Chatman, in his 1985 book “The Surface of the World”, Antonioni and Rothko have met. When Antonioni visited Rothko in New York he said this about Rothko’s work:

           “Your paintings are like my films—they’re about nothing… with precision”

What I love about this statement is not it’s comment about “nothingness” but, rather, its comment about “precision“. Even if the director himself is the one who said this, to say that Antonioni’s films are about “nothing” is to downplay the true significance of them. In the case of Antonioni, the “nothingness” is for the purpose of letting us experience something far more subtle than plot; the experience of alienation. By way of his own stated philosophy, Antonioni quickly dispenses with “the event” to take on the task of explaining why and what it feels like to deal with the event. In that respect, “L’Avventura”, for example, is “about” a woman who goes missing on a boating trip; but he dispenses with that “event” in the first few minutes of the film. The next 2 hours are about what it feels like to search, and the relationship changes that arise. In a comparable sense, Rothko’s paintings are not about “nothing“. They are “about” touching the depths of our emotions and feelings. They are “about” something  absolutely crucial: transcendence.

To understand what I mean, we need to look at the philosophical foundations of Rothko’s work. You will find that the philosophers from whom he draws are not the ones whose philosophy I follow. That is why, in a later post, I’ll talk about why I love his work even if it’s foundational philosophy is somewhat counter to my philosophy of life. There are feelings of ecstasy that I see in a realist painter like my friend Michael Newberry and there are feelings of ecstasy that I feel from Rothko. Newberry (whose work I adore and who I very deeply respect)  does not feel comparably. Because I want to explore where I differ, I’ll eventually be addressing why I feel as I do. But I can’t discuss that before building a base. To do that we must look at Rothko’s philosophical influences, not mine.

There are 2 philosophical works that Rothko explicitly cites as being influential. They are Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy”. I’ll quickly dispense with the first because I know rather little about it. But it is important to mention. The second is a topic with which I can reasonably competently deal.

In “Fear and Trembling” Kierkegaard presents a retelling of what in Judaism we call “The Akidah” or “The Binding of Isaac”. It’s the story of Abraham ascending the mountain with Isaac in tow, with the intent of sacrificing Isaac per God’s command. At the last-minute, of course, Isaac is saved and Abraham has proven how much faith he has. Most Christians I know, and many Jews, view this as Abraham’s great statement of faith in God and/or of obedience. I don’t like the story and I dislike it for exactly the reason that Kierkegaard discusses: There can be no rational justification for Abraham’s behavior. Irrespective of “God’s command” we must ask: “Is it ethical to have a willingness to kill your son?” I personally say “no”. Kierkegaard takes this specific story, though, and generalizes it. He makes the story into an existential crisis in which Abraham’s anguish about the decision represents an allegory for the entire human condition. The important point, relative to Rothko, is this notion of generalizing something specific. Kierkegaard contends that once an act has been carried out by an individual, that act becomes universal. My understanding of Rothko’s Kierkegaard connection is that he sees art the same way. For Rothko, neither the act of creating nor the role of the creator are easily understandable or explicable. In the context of Abraham, Kierkegaard calls the ethical problem the “teleological suspension of the ethical”. Rothko’s corollary is the suspension of individual self-expression and autobiography, in favor of performing an abstract “act of faith”. Please remember what I said earlier. I’m not an expert. You now know everything I know about Kierkegaard and Rothko and I certainly am open to corrective comments. So, let’s move on.

If you look at Rothko’s published writing and some of the Rothko scholarship, you will see that there is a well established connection between Rothko and Nietzsche. Specifically, Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy” is a key influence. Now, I view Rothko’s work as stunningly beautiful and I was stunned when I learned, years ago, that he considered it to be in the “tragic” tradition. What I did not know then, but what I have come to learn, is that to understand Rothko’s “tragedy” you have to understand Nietzsche’s explanation of why Greek Tragedy died out. Let’s begin there.

According to Nietzsche, the demise of the Greek Tragedy is the result of the decline of the “Dionysian” and the rise of the “Apollonian”. When I first read this I knew, for certain, that I was not a philosopher (at least not philosophical historian, at any rate). I had to work to understand what he meant. (To be honest, I’m still not good at understanding Nietzsche). What I think he means is that, as the more free-form, exuberant, intoxicating focus on the theater of myth gave way to the greater precision, order, symmetry, and form of a theater depicting the phenomenal world, the genre of Greek tragedy died away. Perhaps equally important, from my limited knowledge, was the disappearance of the “chorus” and the musical aspects of Greek theater. So, to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy died because it became too rigid, formal, and rational. But, Nietzsche did not care all that much about Greek theater. He cared more about formalizing his contention and then generalizing it to represent (again) the “human condition”.

One more thing about Nietzsche before tying it together with Rothko. Nietzsche learned from Schopenhauer’s aesthetics that art had a purpose. For the record this is NOT my definition of the purpose of art and I don’t accept it as the sole rationale for the existence of art: it is Schopenhauer’s via Nietzsche’s. The idea is that the purpose of art is to make life bearable for individuals in an interconnected world who’s inter-relationships we don’t understand. To Schopenhauer, if we could actually look out at the ultimate nature of reality we  could never subsequently go about living our ordinary, mundane lives. This is because we are individuals in only one respect. In another respect, we are just cogs in the grand scheme of human existence. In fact, he tries to explain our tendency toward cruelty by blaming it on our inability to see that we are all part of one big entity. There is much to be said for that last statement.

What about Rothko? Well, Nietzsche had a major impact on him. Of the “Birth of Tragedy” Rothko said that it: “left an indelible impression upon my mind and has forever colored the syntax of my own reflections on the questions of art”. If the purpose of art is to make life bearable, then perhaps his job as an artist is to do something else that Nietzsche expounded:  to allow the viewer a controlled view of the ultimate nature of reality through a return to the Dionysian by means of abstraction.

One more thing to consider. The philosophers I’ve mentioned, living in a time of representational plastic arts, viewed music as distinct from painting or sculpture. While music could be representational in the form of Opera or “programmatic” music, it was the one art (prior to the 20th century) that was not necessarily representational. So music was viewed as the art most able to put the audience in touch with this hidden reality. The visual arts could not do that. But with abstraction, many artists attempted to overcome that “limitation”. In my personal opinion, Rothko came closer than anyone else to achieving that goal. His work approaches that “state” of “musicality”. I almost like to think of his paintings as “tone poems for people with synesthesia”.

Rothko has said that “The poignancy of art in my life lay in it’s Dionysian content”. During a panel discussion at the opening of the Tate Modern Retrospective a few years back:  Nigel Warburton (to whom I owe much of my understanding of Rothko and philosophy) asked us to consider the Dionysian aspects of Rothko’s work. Some of his examples included:

(1) Indistinct and ever-changing forms

(2) Work accentuated by the low light in which Rothko preferred many of his paintings to be viewed.

(3) Lack of clarity

(4) Lack of stability

(5) The ease with which a viewed can get “lost” in a painting, even to the extent of a loss of the sense of individuation.

Nigel is a Rothko expert and I certainly am not. Still, in the case of every one of his examples, I see something I recognize and something I love in the work of Mark Rothko. I’m a rationalist at heart, and I’m not supposed to fall into the abyss of Platonic, Dionysian irrationality. But I do. Every single time I’m in a room with Rothko paintings, I do. At the Philips collection in DC, I do. At the National Gallery, I do. At the Rothko Chapel in Houston, I do. I’m sorry my dear co-rationalists, but I have to admit it, I fall in love with this work everywhere I see it and I fall in love with it more each time. You’ll have to wait a while longer for a blog post that attempts to explain why this is. But for now, I’ll just admit it. Rothko’s work is not “rational” but it is powerfully affecting and; whether or not I like Nietzsche, or Schopenhauer, or Kierkegaard, or their predecessors and successors; it is the fact that Rothko adopted them as his philosophers that has provided the groundwork.

  1. Wow, just the sheer bravado in tackling Rothko as a subject is worthy of admiration, but you also did a wonderful job. I could only say something like ” I really…really like Rothko, I think because of the ummm…colors” All I am certain of is that I could imagine sitting in a room with a Rothko for years and never get tired of gazing at it. I appreciate how he allows the viewer to keep their thoughts and feelings and not impose his own, yes like classical music interludes.

  2. Dan says:

    I don’t have too much time to leave a coherent and well argued comment, but I’d like to clarify a few things. The Birth of Tragedy advocates the combination (aufheben) of Dionysian and Apollonian aesthetics – the ideal greek tragedy (which he refers to as Attic), combines the primal unity of Dionysus and the pristine individuation of Apollo. In the drama, the words are Apollonian (as, in his mind, are Homer & friends); the music is Dionysian. Also, the text (BoT, that is) is quite concerned with the death of tragedy – but Nietzche blames Socrates.

    Kierkegaard, in my mind, is more concerned with Abraham’s belief that he could perform the sacrifice, but that God would restore his son. This is absolutely absurd, of course. For Kierkegaard, it is this absolute faith based on a complete impossibility that makes Abraham a compelling figure.

    I don’t know anything about Rothko, but I am interested. You’ve got some good stuff.

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