I wrote this piece after going to see the play Red about Mark Rothko. The title comes from a phrase the art critic Waldemar Januszczak used to describe Rothko’s work.
You can’t understand Mark Rothko’s work until you get close to it. From a distance, it appears to confirm some of the worst assumptions about modern art, particularly abstract art: it’s simple blobs of colour; it took no talent to make; it doesn’t mean anything; a child could do it.
And then you get up close.
The first thing you realise is that the colours aren’t solid; there are variations in tone all across the works. Overall the same colour, certainly, but no more uniform than a face is uniformly pink or brown. The second thing is just how densely worked the paint is. The brushstrokes are visible; and they don’t just go in one direction. Rothko’s brush was busy across this surface, backwards and forwards, up and down, diagonally. The only forms of motion not represented are curves and swirls. This is carefully considered painting. They look the way they do precisely because Rothko consciously intended them to look like that. The brush marks are loose, certainly, but so were Rembrandt’s. So were Van Gogh’s. So were Turner’s.
And then you look at where the colours change. The meticulous blending of one colour into another. It’s exquisite, and as subtle as the variation in tone on any Old Master. These are no thoughtless daubs; this is real technique at work.
The effect of standing in front of a Rothko is difficult to describe. Back when I visited the Tate as a schoolboy, my art teacher said “just stand in front of a whole block of red, so that you can’t see anything else. Think about what it feels like to just be able to see red.” But you can’t do that. That’s when you realise that the size of these paintings was just as carefully considered as their surfaces. No matter how close you get, you can still see other colours in your peripheral vision. It can only be deliberate.
Rothko was playing sensory tricks. As he was a studious man, I can only imagine that he had researched what was known about the way that eyes work and tailored his art accordingly. Human eyes have not evolved to stare at one thing. The visual sense works by detecting boundaries and movement. That is why your eyes move all the time; the fastest muscular movement in anybody’s body. They constantly flicker and rove, seeking out differences all the time; and if they stop moving, you stop seeing. Rothko must have known that his viewers would not be able to their eyes flicking over his colour boundaries, again and again. He must also have known that we instinctively see patterns and familiarity, even when we aren’t looking for them. His paintings look like windows and doorways because he knew that’s what we’d see in his simple designs.
So we are meant to feel drawn in to these paintings. We are meant to feel like we are moving towards them, drifting into some new space. And because Rothko, undoubtedly a bit of a control freak, also specified the height at which his pictures were to be hung, we are meant to feel drawn upwards. Perhaps that’s why so many people feel that they have a spiritual quality.
What this means, of course, is that there is no point whatsoever in looking at a Rothko in reproduction. It’s all about the effect of the actual artwork. It overwhelms your senses because it is supposed to. And sitting in a room full of Rothkos is going to be disorienting and profound. That’s exactly what he wanted to happen.
What on earth possessed this meticulous, thoughtful control freak to accept a commission to paint murals for the most expensive restaurant in New York City? Who did he think was going to be in that space, and why? Considering his eventual suicide, was this an act of setting himself up to fail, the first part of his self-destruction?
Rothko rooms are chapels by any definition of the word. They are spaces for introspection where there should not be any other distractions. I’ve never been to the actual Rothko Chapel, with its huge black and indigo panels, but I can’t imagine it’s a happy experience. The Seagram room at Tate Modern certainly isn’t. The panels are the colours of dried blood, and the feeling of being surrounded by them is biological and visceral. It’s not something I can face easily even if I want to.
I think what my teacher (whose name was Ian Ferguson) was getting at is that there is something synaesthetic about standing in front of a Rothko. With your visual sense overloaded, it starts to spill over into other senses. What does it feel like to be standing in front of a field of red? It feels like a buzzing. The colour pulsates, and you know it’s a trick: it’s the effect of the boundary between colours and the way your brain processes that. But knowing that doesn’t stop it happening.
Visiting an exhibition of some of his other works revealed that is not just sound that crosses over with these works. Some of his brighter pieces – oranges and greens, sunny yellows and serene blues – trigger an emotional response. Cheerful, relaxed, energised. The acid green creates a zingy taste along the sides of the tongue, even a phantom smell. I sometimes get the same feelings looking at El Greco, possibly why I find some of his work so uncomfortable to look at. Klimt is another one, with his fields of gold and flesh. I’ve never seen a real Klimt.
It’s a total art, and it’s unlike anything else. Immersive art and virtual reality before the terms were even dreamed of. Art of the senses. What a legacy.