Art Coffee Break: Early and Late Mark Rothko
The tragedy of Mark Rothko is that whenever you see a Rothko at a museum, you'll probably overhear someone nearby looking at the Rothko and saying "Well, I could do that." And yes, while most of us could paint a square color field, few would ever have the initial idea to do so.
Art can often be a bit of a opera of technical skills. Like marveling at an Olympic diver, we swoon at the sublime accuracy and detail of realism. Rothko reached a different level of the sublime in his own way. After attempts at communicating myth and form in painting, he retreated into an utterly abstract style of painting.
Here is an early Mark Rothko painting from 1942:
Let’s look at these early paintings of Mark Rothko. Speaking strictly as a painter, it looks like what he was trying to do in these works was communicate a mythology, similar to de Chirico, Joan Miró, and Max Ernst. This quasi-surrealist style seems closer to Joan Miró than de Chirico or Ernst. Not quite Picasso, not quite Miró, Rothko made paintings like this in 1941-1942:
Look at the labored and strained appearance of these paintings. You can see that the figures in the painting above have a dark underpainting, with white and gray paint scraped over the shadows. This dry, substanceless paint doesn't convince me of much except the painter's own indecision. Like running chalk over stone, making these paintings was probably an irritating task. These paintings may seem like easy productions compared to a super-realistic painting, but to me, the paintings represent a monumental and painful creative struggle. These paintings do not solve anything, much less themselves, and they barely present a conversation. They are simply a total mess.
Most art critics would find something good to say about these works. For a moment, Rothko himself might have been proud of them, because they represented the same mythologies that his peers were chasing. Some might resonate with these early Rothkos, and truly, maybe these paintings captured how Rothko felt. Yet, I sense Rothko didn’t feel like he fully communicated a message after finishing these works. Faced with these paintings, he must have stepped away from the easel with an abrupt sense of unease. Applying more work on the paintings further wouldn’t have made them better - it would have made them worse. So he stopped. Put in less words, these paintings are so ugly that and no amount of revision could save them.
Compare the ugly duckling early paintings to later Rothkos, like this one from 1961:
The untamed scramble of Rothko’s early paintings made way for the peace of his color field works. Rothko suffered through a series of complex failures before reaching the endpoint of simplicity. Very few individuals would have the follow through to keep going after so much conflict. So, when someone says of a Rothko “I could paint that” the sentiment is only partly true. We could all paint an idea that is already made for us. We could all have the idea for the iPhone now that we see how an iPhone works.
We can see Rothko wading towards his final abstractive form in the painting below, made in 1948:
Reaching the idea is the revolution. The years of reaching were especially revolutionary for Rothko. Most people outside of the art world will never see an early Rothko, and most art worlders would walk right by an early Rothko in a museum without a second glance. Like champions atop a heap of irrelevancy, the color field paintings float to the top of Google Images.
By most accounts, Rothko was still a very complex individual when he was making color field paintings later in life. When we look at a Rothko, should see a painter who gave chaos a good try before becoming the inventor of simplicity.