In 1986, prior to the opening of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, I walked into the museum’s predecessor, the “Temporary Contemporary” for an exhibition of the work of James Turrell. By this time, I was 4 years out of CalArts and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I did not even know who Jim Turrell was. All I knew is that he did something funky with fluorescent light bulbs. By the time I had seen the show, my outlook on the role of art had changed. I LOVED Turrell’s work. What appeared to be brightly lit 2D solid paintings were actually 3 dimensional. They were not solid; they were openings in the walls, lit from the inside with fluorescent tubes. What appeared to be solid washes of color that flowed from one into the another, were actually illusions created by an extraordinary use of light. I could look at them for long periods of time and they would not cease to “mess with my mind”. More amazingly, as I sat there I felt a sense of peace and a sense of joy. I continued my belief that the role of art is to help us to experience the world and that it is most powerful when it helps in the experience of love, compassion, and joy. But on this particular day I came to a personal, private realization that nonrepresentational art could do that to an extraordinary degree.
In the past, I have written about my love for the work of Bill Viola; especially my love of his piece “Five Angels for the Millennium”. I won’t dwell on Bill’s work now. But I do need to mention the experience of sitting at the Getty Center in the room with the “Five Angels”. Already, by the time I was ready to experience this piece, I had seen, been mesmerized, and fallen in love with Bill’s collection of video pieces called “The Passions”. I sort of just stumbled into the “Angels” as an afterthought. I’m sitting on the floor, surrounded by 5 huge, rising blue human bodies. I was transfixed. I had a wonderful feeling of excitement. Not peace – excitement. But still, what I felt was profound joy. Bill’s “Passions” reconfirmed for me, the profound emotional effect that art can have on an audience; The “Angels” transferred that effect to a feeling of happiness.
Just a few blocks from the place I first experienced Turrell was a bar called “Al’s Bar”. That was my usual downtown LA hangout. Across the street, on Traction Avenue, was an artists loft. One evening I was sitting in the bar and in comes my actress, clown, comedienne, friend Judith Harding. In Judith’s hand is a postcard. The image on that card was of a realist painting, called “Denouement”, by Michael Newberry, an artist who lived in that Traction Avenue loft. The painting was of a man and a woman and a bed. But the light did not come from outside. While the painting was almost hyper-realistic, it’s one abstract characteristic was it’s light – a light that came from within the painting. Newberry’s work is 1000% consistent. By that, I mean that he has a “manifesto” that focuses on his belief that the role of art is to inspire man to achieved his highest potential, and that his work never deviates from that goal. I admire his work so much that I now have a number of his pastels, pencil drawings, and studies in my own personal collection. I love Newberry’s painting and it should not surprise you when I say why: When I spend time with his work I feel better about myself, I am inspired, and I feel a deep sense of joy. Michael’s work is about emotion – essentially only positive emotion – and the way a painting can help the audience to experience that positive emotion. It does that by showing us our potential and making us want to achieve. In his case, it is through the human form, an abstraction of light within a realist context, and a very direct visual depiction of ecstasy.
Sculptor Martine Vaugel, does in bronze the same thing that Newberry does in 2 dimensions. Her work focuses on the elevation of the human spirit and the sense of joy that comes from seeing that spirit take form. Like Newberry, Vaugel is intent on the single consistant objective of using the human form to help the viewer develop a desire to strive to be their best. Not surprisingly, I view Martine’s work and I feel a deep, joyful, emotional response.
So far, I have discussed 4 artists and not one of them has been Mark Rothko. So…. what’s up with that?
Here’s what I believe (in my own personal view, with which each of the 4 artists I mentioned would take some issue) of what unifies them. In the case of Turrell, Viola, Newberry, and Vaugel, I can sit with their works for a long period and I can experience joy. Each of these artists elicits a powerful, positive emotional response. I haven’t got a clue if what I’m about to say has any truth to it at all but, I’d make the wild-ass guess that if you stuck me in and fMRI machine and showed me work by each of these artists, you would find that my brain has comparable reactions to each. Really, I admit I just made that up with no foundation except an intuition about how I feel around these pieces of art. But, you have to admit that it would be an interesting test and I might just write a grant proposal to prove it. But that’s one of my little (all too common) digressions. The bottom line is that I like all of these artists and I find consistency in the reason I like their work. In each case, they (for widely differing reasons) help me to experience such joy as to be tending toward the SUBLIME.
Long before any of these artists, whose work I so love, was creating art, Mark Rothko was making paintings which (in my humble opinion) had the same goals. I will not go so far as to say that Rothko influenced them directly (certainly not Newberry and Vaugel ;although there is a case to be made that Turrell’s “pre-Rodin Crater” work is an extension of Rothko’s aesthetic). But I will say that Rothko has the same emotional effect on me personally; and he pre-dates then all by quite a few years. So, I couple these artists together with Rothko as artists whose work deals with transcendence and with the experience of the sublime.
But… oh no! I’m a rationalist and the notion of “the sublime” usually means religiosity. Were that it’s only meaning, I’d have a problem with my feelings because this stuff is not typical religious iconography. Besides, if it were, it probably would not affect me as it does. But (fortunately?) “sublime” can also mean a deep emotional (philosophically spiritual if not religiously spiritual) feeling evoked by the subjective experience of a painting, sculpture, or piece of music. There is a tradition of painting – including Flavin, Novros, Newman, Marden, and Turrell – that works this way. (Lucky me!) Thank God for non-religious metaphysics! 🙂
The color-field paintings of Rothko are examples of this desire to effect profound emotional reactions in the audience through singularly visual stimuli. These color fields use the power of light and color to bring out human emotional reactions. While visually simple, these paintings show the way that a painting can initiate the inherent human ability to experience complex emotions – EVEN IF the painting is not representational. Rothko’s work dispenses with representation but still maintains its “absolute emotion”. In this way, the paintings can inspire, evoke joy, and motivate even without being representational. That is what I love about Rothko.
So here is the long-awaited (and perhaps long overdue) first answer to the question of why Steve the “rationalist” “likes” the work of some nonrepresentational artists – specifically Mark Rothko: In my view, the role of art is to help us to better understand ourselves, our world, and the critical role that our desire to do good works and to achieve our potential serves in making us better people. Positive emotional responses, which we call transcendence, can be elicited by nonrepresentational as well as representational artwork. These works make us respond with feelings of joy and joy makes us want to achieve. Joy motivates us to move forward, to see our potential, and to live more vibrant lives. Perhaps you have to sit with a roomful of Rothko’s for a while before you feel it in the same way that you feel it when you see a Newberry painting or listen to a Puccini opera. But, at least in my personal opinion, the sublimity is there So, I love the work of Rothko because those color field paintings represent transcendence and because I viscerally feel it. It is not Rothko alone that does this for me but, to me….
THAT IS THE ECSTASY OF ROTHKO!