SAINT JULIAN PRESS
KEVIN MCGRATH ~ POET
The Rothko Murals
MARK ROTHKO painted these pictures in Nineteen Sixty-One and they are now—having been restored by a process of artificial luminosity—on exhibit again at the new Fogg Museum on Quincy Street in Cambridge. There are two other groups of similar work: the splendid Seagram paintings are now dispersed among three museums on three continents, and the others—in the Rothko Chapel at Houston—are more architectural than painterly. What follows here is an ekphrastic reflection on a mural room.
These six works are large views onto what is almost a prediscursive vision of the world, a pre-social or even pre-mythical scrutiny that does not aim at humanity but at being itself. The gently radiant forms themselves are profoundly different in each painting and are in no manner repetitious, in fact in this work even the idea of repetition is not feasible for such is the fully inherent unity of expression here. How Rothko arrived at these indeterminate shapes is a mystery and the aetiology of these outline figures remains undisclosed as they remain profoundly non-representational and unique. Simultaneously they are full of life, in fact that is all that they are, life that exists without embodiment; for the pictures are as if windows or frames that allow the spectator to have access to such an unworldly and inhumanly pure existence.
The pictures are not just conceptual renderings but are majestically powerful images that are able to amplify a strong emotional presence, an incidence of silence and immobility that is both pre-verbal and unaware of language: they communicate by emanation. The absolute potential for consciousness in these pictures is vast and motionless, insensible, thoroughly alive, and yet superlatively sentient. Here there is no melody, no grammar, no distinction nor resolution; neither origin nor terminus, there is only stillness and absolution, a faultless magnitude that is a-temporal.
Not many individuals in this world are able to see like Rothko manages to discern, to actually examine slowly and carefully and then to be able to translate that experience of discrimination into plastic signification that can itself reveal such visual knowledge, transmitting the message onward toward another medium in the eye of the beholder. This is especially the case because what Rothko paints does not exist in the world as we know it, much as the portraits of Lucian Freud present human beings but not as they live and breathe but in terms of their interior and invisible psyche.
This is a mantic ability, a gift of the Muses akin to the descrying which the great poets are able to perform. The dialectic is such that the communication between this unseen world and the visual and conceptual sensation of the spectator occurs via the intermediary work of the painter. Gauguin managed to accomplish this in his masterpiece D’où Venons Nous, but he continued to depend upon myth and the representation of those metaphors. Rothko excludes metaphor from his pictures.
To be able to understand the material world in such a light and to be able to apprehend such truth in the world is what distinguishes the most superlative artists. This is not a technical ability nor a matter of arranging proportion, perspective, nor composition but of consciousness itself, of being able to touch upon an unspeakable and supra-natural condition.
The paintings have been carefully and slowly developed using innumerable thin layers of diluted pigment which give the works a subtle yet infinitely nuanced and dynamic texture. It is as if the surface of these canvases is a living and vibrant tissue of transparent awareness for the quality of the paint constantly and delicately varies across the face of the work; even blackness assumes a refined and perpetual activity. The modelling of the forms is lightly extensive and brings to these images both volume and depth and the dimensions are such that both foreground and background can be exchanged by the human eye with little effort, so shifting the object of the work: allowing the body of the painting to move simultaneously back and forth in easy visual exchange, in an oscillation or frequency that partakes of no timely measure.
The sparse watery curvature that occurs at the edge of some of these shapes sustains the implicit volume of the object so that it possesses not simply surface but also quantitative mass and receding silhouette. The continuously shifting saturation and pigmentation of the chromatic field lends minute activity to the colour which performs this action and thousands of small precise brush-strokes must have gone into the production of the pictures.
The non-representational quality of these forms defeats the viewer because all metonymy is precluded in this unique depiction and even the possibility of metaphor is curtailed if not occluded. Yet paradoxically—or even oxymoronically—the forms are completely vital and ponderously vivacious, they are definitely not abstractions but pictures of terrific life and immense vigour in how they manifest and express their mysterious and soundless existence. Thus irrationally, they are figure and non-figure equally and at once and are hence able to overcome or defeat that which is simply finite: the viewer in his or her sensible perception.
It is rare for painting to go this far and there are few works in the last two centuries of the Western tradition which achieve such visionary movement, for it is almost impossible to represent something that does not exist except in an extremely enlightened state or situation. As Brice Marden once observed, ‘Cézanne is the end of painting,’ yet these present canvases go much further in this respect in that they take painting to a point that is rarely experienced not only by artists but by human beings in general; for such a circumstance is not earthly and has no real place.
These five visual and profoundly ephemeral monuments—along with their earlier three oil-sketch works, one of which is even more extraordinarily non-representational than all the others, and along with some initial designs on paper—can now only be viewed in the light of an especially designed and projected illumination which restores an original colouring to the canvases. For Rothko had employed a pigment that was corrupt and elusive with the result that the chromatic density and first hue of the painting has vanished over time.
The grandeur of the vision is such though that what the viewer experiences is necessarily phenomenal and ephemeral: that view cannot be retained and taken beyond the room where the paintings presently hang. The unqualified complexity of the images is such that the human mind cannot transport these captions of the beautiful any further than where they exist in time today. Again, this is another paradox, that such a vision can be so strongly depicted and yet the spectator cannot actually possess that scene beyond its immediate sighting and physical location.
One of Rothko’s earlier horizontal ‘multiform’ paintings was sold at auction not so long ago for between eighty and ninety million dollars; these Harvard murals—which are vertical in plan—are worth even more. Insofar as the pictures portray an hypothetical origin of consciousness they are therefore in an immanent sense depicting the actual source of human valence, hence the superb price of these works in the modern market. The work of artistic entrepreneurs like Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin are only tokens of value, for the creativity of these ‘makers’ is not any way equivalent to the profound originality of what Rothko accomplished: they are very different in nature for the work of Hirst and Emin is only mediate and not universal and remains in the capitalistic style of Marcel Duchamp. Even the magnificent compositions of painters like Motherwell, Newman, or Kline are similarly formal arrangements rather than ontological signatures.
These paintings then are depictions of a supernal yet natural being that is infinitely and profoundly patient, one that is absolutely motionless and completely pitiful and compassionate yet unmoving in its station of grace; what is pictured here occupies no space in the universe and is absolutely ideal in a Socratic or Platonic sense. These pictures portray a universal figuration that is unknowing of pain or hurt and which has not experienced the damage or psychic wounding come of time nor the mental anguish of being mortal and perpetually limited; yet their reality concerns nothing despite the fact that they are figures and not abstractions. The canvases are all very different and yet the conceptual view that is being expressed is unified and it is as if the paintings only represent dissimilar yet identical dimensions of one discrete vision: an effect that draws upon further paradox.
In a way it is right that these canvases became so fugitive and evanescent and so evasive of human and temporal continuity, for what they offer is a vision of the perfect and fully coherent: not simply of the perfect but of BEING that is aware of and absolutely equal to the perfect. In this they are moral witnesses, which we as viewers can barely attempt to consider: we become their flawed and mortal messengers, what classical Greeks referred to as the théoros. For timely creatures like ourselves the beautiful is only ephemeral and it is the kindness and terrific endurance in the life of Mark Rothko which has brought such a moment to fruition: for us as we walk through and pause in an idealised mural room which he once made elsewhere and which has been re-made here in the Fogg.
Let us close with the final lines of Rothko’s chapter on “The Attempted Myth of Today” that appear in his book, The Artist’s Reality, published long after his death and in which he refers to art as ‘an ultimate unity’.1 In this particular chapter he says that, ‘In our hope for the heroic, and the knowledge that art must be heroic, we cannot but wish for the communal myth again. Who would not rather paint the soul-searching agonies of Giotto than the apples of Chardin, for all the love we have for them?’2 In a previous chapter, “Beauty”, he says, ‘Both Leonardo and Dürer in their writings attested to a definite duality which they never quite manage to resolve. They both speak of painting being simply a mirror by implying that the mirror can not only mirror appearances, but that it mirrors the most profound aspects of appearances.’3
1 Edited by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, 2004, Yale University Press, New Haven; p.92.
2 Ibid., p.104. 3 Ibid., p.68. Later in this chapter, on p.71, concerning the topic “Beauty and its Apperception”, he remarks that, ‘Insofar as we suggest that communicability is possible at all, we must accept some abstraction as a point of reference.’