On Rothko and the Portland Retrospective (Part 11): Only Ground Remains – Searching for Tragedy but Finding Grandeur

Posted: May 19, 2012 in Experiences, On Beauty
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The Portland Rothko Retrospective will remain on view for only one more week. Today was very likely my last chance to visit it. I spent an hour there, this morning, and I want to make one last attempt to urge you to get there if you have not already done so. It is an important show and you owe it to yourself to see it.

Let me bring a few topics to conclusion.

From Figure to Ground

One of my earliest recommendations was that you walk the show chronologically. I urged you to observe the gradual dissolution of “figure” to the extent that, in the late paintings, nearly all that remains is “ground”. Along with this comes the gradual trend toward minimalism which culminates in the  low contrast and tonal darkness of the Seagram’s Murals and other late color field paintings. I also pointed out that, even in the early painting, the “ground” has many of the characteristics of the later panels. Christopher Rothko is the guy who originally told me to look for these patterns and I stand by my contention that Christopher’s guidelines are strongly supported. Here are a few examples that I noticed today.

First, in the following photo notice that there are 3 bands: heads, torsos, extremities. Ignore the foreground that contains those elements and you have a light grey, red, dark grey color field. Arguably, the colors are as important as the images. This, to me, seems like a good example of a transitional painting – moving from the importance of figure to the importance of ground. Blur your eyes and you tell me.

Yet closer to a pure color field is another painting from the 40s that has an even less important element of figure. It’s too early to be a color field painting but the panels are certainly the most important part of the painting.

And, right on the chronological cusp of Rothko’s solidification of the color field is this painting.

So many of the color transitions here have that blurred, indistinct, blended coloration between panels in the “classic” Rothko paintings. Even the brushstrokes here look like the brushwork of the Rothko we all know.

When one considers that these 3 paintings fall right smack in the middle of Rothko’s oeuvre, between the figure of the 20s and 30s and the panels of the 50s and 60’s it seems relatively clear that the transition from reliance on figure to the reliance on ground is chronologically smooth. By the late 60’s only ground remains.

Tragedy or Grandeur?

In one of my early posts I mentioned that I loved the emotion in Rothko’s paintings. I even said that they made me feel good. Later in this series I described how Rothko viewed his work as “tragic”. I have wrestled with this personal contradiction for the duration of this retrospective.

I have no issues with considering the Seagram’s murals tragic.I also certainly understand why the Rothko Chapel paintings so powerfully evoke the sublime. What I wrestle with is the relationship between “sublime” and “tragic”. The “sublime” in Rothko’s estimation can evoke fear, desperation, and even terror. But, try as I might, I don’t always feel that way around these paintings. In some of the very late paintings I can see and feel that. But, for me, many of the color field don’t elicit that reaction.  At least in some cases, I simply can’t stop myself from feeling GOOD around these pieces. Rothko may tell me that I misread them or that I don’t really get their power and intent. But, believe me, I get their power! I just don’t always get their “tragedy”.

I tend to feel like there is room for personal reaction in the experience of nonrepresentational art. I’m okay with the fact that I don’t always react the way I think Rothko would expect me to react. That’s cool. But I also feel like I have some insight into why I feel as I do. Reacting to the “sublime” can sometimes evoke what Abraham Joshua Heschel might call “grandeur”. I’ve been re-reading Heschel’s book “God in Search of Man” and I’ve really come to love his expression “Radical Amazement”. That is Heschel’s way of saying that our experience of the grandeur of the sublime is one of amazement. Seeing the beauty of nature, we react with amazement. Realizing the immensity of the universe, we react with amazement. To Heschel, this “amazement” is a core of spirituality. I’m starting to think that this “radical amazement” is really what I feel in a room full of Rothko’s. Sometime it’s amazing fear. Other times it’s amazing joy. In both cases, it’s a viable reaction to the sublime. So, I think I understand what Rothko wants me to experience. But I think that sometimes my reaction to the grandeur is just a little different that his expectation.

What I’m trying to say is that I understand how Rothko sees his work in the context of the sublime; but I see it (or at least some of it) more in the context of experiencing grandeur, irrespective of the specific emotion evoked by that grandeur. And…. I’m cool with that.


I’m not always right and I hope I’m not always wrong. But I love the work of Mark Rothko and he remains one of my favorite painters. If you want to pick apart all the mistakes I’ve made over the course of these 11 posts, I’m sure there is much to fuel your endeavor. What I want you to understand is that these posts aren’t about me being right or showing off my great knowledge about theory. These posts have been about sharing the way I wrestle with art, philosophy, beauty, culture, and experience. I’ve not been trying to teach you much. What I have done is to share my personal experiences with Rothko’s work and the Portland retrospective in the hope that you will get down to the museum and check it out. I really do hope you have learned something from this particular series of posts. More than that, however, I really do hope that, if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll get down to PAM this week before the show closes.

Thanks for playing!

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