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Books: Mark Rothko himself provides an important piece of the Ab Ex jigsaw puzzle

Rothko’s meditation on how to reconcile physical experience with ideas

The appearance of a new book by any leading Abstract Expressionist is a surprise event. With Mark Rothko—whose published statements are terse and scarce—it promises special disclosures. In fact, The artist’s reality: philosophies of art yields fewer revelations than it does an important missing piece in a growing jigsaw puzzle.

If this early effort, long sought by scholars and rediscovered idling among the family’s archive in 1988, hardly revolutionises our understanding of its author’s mind and œuvre, it does amplify them in valuable ways. Here is the alembic of various ideas which Rothko distilled into the deceptive simplicity of his mature, imageless icons.

Christopher Rothko’s astute introduction explains the problems of editing the typescript, rightly cautioning that it is not a road map to his father’s work.

First, Rothko’s many draughts were incomplete and the chapters fell in no definite sequence. As now organised, the sections have an order without being, strictly speaking, in order. In any case, the writing must have spanned a period of several years: starting in perhaps 1936, it trailed off around 1942.

Second, although The artist’s reality outlines a nascent doctrine concerning pictorial expression, a tantalising elusiveness characterises the whole, which circles around a set of possibilities without ever quite striking to their heart. Doubtless Rothko left that target untouched, the better to seize it through the emotions sought in his actual paintings.

By temperament, Rothko was at once learned and systematically unsystematic—true to one of his early inspirations, Friedrich Nietzsche. Instead of being a fully-fledged philosophical treatise, The artist’s reality should therefore better be taken as a series of timely meditations upon a theme. The fundamental question that Rothko tackles would preoccupy his career. How to reconcile sensuous physical experience with the rigours of the realm of ideas?

Of course, such a synthesis rehearsed a problem as old as Plato: the tricky interplay between universals and particulars. Rothko’s canonical compositions were to evoke the first by their enigmatic rectangular fields, the second by their subtly humanised proportions allied to an idiosyncratic, handcrafted facture and singular chromatic choices. The artist’s reality confirms, if proof were still needed, that the origins of this dialectic lay in the dualities of Plato. Likewise, Rothko’s overall eschewal of any discussion in this text of his own output reflects a belief that images cannot be reduced to the level of discursive speech, an assumption equally attuned to the neo-Platonic tradition—itself an underestimated precursor to Modernist premises as traced, for example, in E.H. Gombrich’s classic essay, “Icones symbolicae”.

More generally, this document is a vital corrective to outdated notions that Abstract Expressionism emerged from avant-garde sources alone—Cubism, Surrealism and the like. On the contrary, these formal ingredients came later.

Instead, Rothko here locates himself in the same fold as the youthful Guston, Pollock, de Kooning and Still by looking to ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the Old Masters. Thus, references to the Venetians hint that their use of colour to create a unified mood-spell perhaps inspired Rothko almost as seminally as, say, Matisse would subsequently do. The oft-quoted phrase “less is more” also seems a telling flash of future developments. Even his mention of the “Hebraic abstraction of Jehovah, who cannot be seen…and whose representations must never be made” strengthens my hunch that a Biblical precedent, the Old Testament’s deus absconditus, haunts Rothko’s aniconic pictorial effects.

Nevertheless, one particularly modern quality informs The artist’s reality: a sense that the contemporary world is somehow depreciated in comparison with the wholeness of being that supposedly marked earlier ages. Accordingly, Rothko’s preference for the primitive led towards Greek myth (shades of The birth of tragedy), early Christian art, Giotto and so forth. There he discerned a unity of thought and feeling, of inner ideas and objectivity, which, with a nod to Mondrian, he praised for its “plasticity”. Plasticity roughly translates as space charged with human feelings. This key assumption rests upon late 19th-century theories of empathy which were an aesthetic commonplace by the time of The artist’s reality. On the other hand, the book broaches a poetics of space that would finally place Rothko’s art among the more uncommon visual achievements of the 20th century.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 155 February 2005