Under the influence of Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche, Rothko explored the unconscious relationships that human beings share with colour. After many years exploring expressionist forms - his total abstract geometry first appeared in 1947. He had tapped into something primal.
At that time colour was an aid to paintings narrative and reality-based forms. But Rothko bucked this trend, depending solely on colour to appeal to our emotions. People break down in front of his paintings, they're raw energy transferred onto canvas - a powerful, quasi-religious experience for viewers.
How did he get there though? First and foremost, art relies on symbols of varying degrees of subtlety that remind us of cues from political, historical and social realms of being. His is devoid of all of that - it's silence was essential. What was on the canvas was as close to painting an emotion as possible. Incredible, considering that it didn't rely on any of the aforementioned cues to do so.
The relative simplicity of his paintings was painful to some. One of his most prominent collectors, Dominique de Menil, felt that his work evoked "The unbearable silence of God." It's rich hued colours developed through intense layering subjects the audience to take a mandatory excursion into the depth of the work. Rothko created some of the most intense artworks on planet earth.
The conditions of viewing a Rothko are strict - as set fourth by the man himself. They must appear in group, in low-lighting and unadulterated by the proximity of others work. This is because it should be an immersive experience, the painting should loom large - oppress and engulf. He took his artwork seriously and wanted other to do so too.
Proximity is important in two ways. One, that the paintings should only be near his own and two - the viewer should be in close. It's from this closeness that they are able to truly unleash the emotional effects of the colours.
The world that we live in, even the spaces that only our minds can explore - the vast expanses of infinite nothingness, is dumbfounding. The scale is sublime and the effects of such is profound. The great impossibility of comprehension is of a magnitude that it's not even worth trying to measure. Rothko gives colour this role - trying his best to answer the unanswerable, or at least equip us with a foot-up in doing so ourselves.
The language that he has created, the vast expansiveness of colour that consumes our emptiness and gives us a space to meditate, is best realised in his Texas non-denominational house of worship - The Rothko Chapel. It was completed in 1971 with site-specific work from Rothko that took the form of fourteen huge near-black paintings that covered the walls. It's a place for any belief, owned by none, to worship, pray, meditate and reflect as they see fit.
Rothko was a difficult man with a heavy drinking habit and a deep depressive streak. The chapel was an ongoing project that went through a great many revisions and architects before it was settled. In 1970, the year before it opened, Rothko committed suicide. He was found in a bath coarse with blood after first numbing himself with barbiturates before slicing an artery.
Religions often thrive in an environment of duality - good and evil - light and dark. Rothko's Chapel is both his symbolic burial ground, a place where his vision was realised in optimal conditions, but also a site for his resurrection. When people visit, overcome by the solitude - they respect his death but feel his life. The colours of Rothko's life, deep and sumptuous, primal in their ability to connect with people's emotions, finally ended up in darkness.
Rothko's became a martyr for his art - his suffering suffused into his creations until, with those fourteen black paintings, they finally overcame him. As we got to see the sublime darkness inherent in all of us, he bore witness to it for the last time.
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