ART CLOSE-UPS: The ‘Sublime’ Work of Mark Rothko

ART CLOSE-UPS: The ‘Sublime’ Work of Mark Rothko

“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point!”

— Mark Rothko

Black on Maroon, Mark Rothko (1958)

Black on Maroon, Mark Rothko (1958)

Black on Maroon, Mark Rothko, 1969

Black on Maroon, Mark Rothko (1969)

My ears pricked up at the mention of Mark Rothko. At a lecture on art and religion at The Queen’s College in Oxford, the presenter hailed Rothko as “one of the sublime artists in the world.”

Sublime…? I had to think about that a bit more. 

Just the weekend before, I visited Tate Modern in London and experienced for myself the Mark Rothko Room filled with large Black on Maroon, oil on canvas panels. The room was dimly lit and I had to come up close to really see the paintings (some of the panels, such as the one on the right, looked completely black until further examination).

I was in museum mode, not meditative reflection mode, so while I certainly felt relaxed and sat on one of the benches for a minute or two breathing in the serene atmosphere and resting my feet, I could hardly have had a religious experience with so many people in the same confined space and a schedule to maintain.

Too bad for me because to really appreciate Rothko’s Abstract Expressionism (Although he rejected that term) it really helps to have a room set up just for his paintings alone complete with appropriate lighting to enhance the intended mood. The Tate Modern provides that extravagance. 

A Background on the Artist

Mark Rothko, along with Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, are often cited as the among the best known of the post-World War II American abstract artists. 

Born of Russian Jewish dissent in 1903 (his given name was Marcus Rothkowitz), Rothko’s family was non-religious, although they lived in fear during a time of growing anti-Semitic rhetoric in Europe. As with so many other families of that era, Rothko’s father moved the family to America when Mark was just 10 years old. Rothko’s biography on-line says that he got involved in the local Portland, Oregon Jewish community in his youth.

Later, after he moved to New York City in 1923, he became the student of Cubist artist, Max Weber, who shared Rothko’s Russian Jewish roots. It was during this period that Rothko began to view art as a means to emotional and religious expression.  

Abstract Expressionism Take Center Stage

Color Abstract Painting, Mark Rothko

Color Abstract Painting, Mark Rothko

His work progressed through the years as he gradually came to settle on rectangular fields of color and light that could, at times, appear to vibrate with optical tension. The exhaustive layering and glazing with pigment mixed with vast amounts of solvent on large canvases were used to intentionally overwhelm the viewer, or in Rothko’s words, make the viewer feel enveloped within the painting. 

To critics who said the oversized work was an attempt to make up for a lack of what was on the canvas, he replied:

“To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside of your experience. However to paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!

 I couldn’t agree more. When I stand before a painting, I want to be in it. The larger the piece, the more intimate I feel about it.

Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX

Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX

A New Take on Religious Artwork

Perhaps a fulfillment of Rothko’s religious journey was the Rothko Chapel he designed in Houston, Texas. The Chapel paintings are monochrome. They are positioned in 3’s, as triptychs, much like the church altarpieces of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, but devoid of any religious symbolism. There are 14 large paintings in total in the Chapel, and the effect is said to be quite powerful. 

Rothko tried to find meaning through his art. He wanted to provide a transcendent experience for viewers – a way to awaken ones awareness of one’s own existence. 

Sadly, Rothko never saw the Chapel completed. A year before the Chapel’s opening in 1971, Rothko took his life, as so many artists have done. He was 66-years old.

Sublime Art, But Still Unhappy?


Black Gray, Mark Rothko

Black Gray, Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko suffered depression for most of his life. He obviously tried to find happiness and fulfillment through his art. In designing the Chapel, he had hoped to provide a place for people of all religions to come and find peace. 

In a 1996 article in Psychology Today entitled, “Capturing Creativity” by Robert Epstein, the author said, “…greater creativity breeds greater happiness. The creative process is itself a source of joy for most people.”

We all strive for meaning in our lives. The creative process brings joy and fulfillment, but as evidenced by the many artists who have ended their lives, or turned to drugs and alcohol to combat whatever emptiness they feel inside, the creative process and the art that results is beautiful and meaningful, but not of a lasting sort that can sustain with consistency the fullness we all need and long for. For that, we must dig deeper. 




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