The sublime or supernatural, the spirit of myth timeless and tragic, these are states to be imagined, honored or worshiped. They are not created by color fields, as the Abstract Expressionist would have us believe. Barnett Newman’s red canvas, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, is neither tragic nor timeless—it is a lot of red, another golden calf for the Art World to worship.
However, Rothko’s paintings are mythic, why? Because he is Iccarus. To paint like Rothko is to fly too close to the sun and to end as he did in a pool of his own blood, with his wings broken at the elbows. His paintings record his doomed flight and the sun is his own honesty about it, making the whole setup mythic.
The collision came when he won a commission to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building. All seven paintings have a boundary that is two dimensional, like beautifully terrifying windows through which there is no escape, an idea that Rothko said he got from Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase of the Medicean-Laurentian Library. Rothko boasted that he painted them to torture the rich as they ate. But he was unable to ignore the truth: that his paintings were dinning room decorations for the wealthy and powerful, reducing him their court jester.
What these paintings really are is true genius. Gnostics believe that this world is hell and the soul is like a bird trapped in a room looking for a window to escape back to the joy of the other side, but Rothko’s windows have no escape – they are doorways to death, a beautiful and brutal reality that we cannot stand. For a moment looking at these monsters of reality, we let death touch us with its cold hands and for that precious moment our panic dissolves.
The abstract artists would have us believe that we can understand the sublime by merely looking at color. Although Rothko bought the same line when he was young , what his paintings tell us is his passionate attempt to achieve this. We feel the desire to reach that shimmering light just beyond and later we understand that black square of failure. This very human emotion is what we relate to and the rest is hubris. Rothko did not fail. His paintings record a valiant attempt that could only result in the endless blackness of death (much like our space travel efforts) – what could be more human, more heroic? So we do cry when we look at Rothko’s work. We cry for the impossibility of it, we cry because we will all fail. Newman’s zippy painting of nothing but boring red claims to succeed in everything: he reaches his sun, which is not only impossible but dramatically boring, having nothing to do with us humans or our condition.
Instead of decorating a room where the rich eat, Rothko donated his precious efforts, his paintings, which he could not bear to even be seen in the company of other paintings, to the Tate museum in England provided they had their own room, and he withdrew the Seagram commission and returned the money.
Artillery Magazine Vol 7 Issue 2 Nov-Dec 2012