PRINT September 1965

The Problem of Color-Light in Mark Rothko

ONE OF THE DECISIVE CONTRADICTIONS in Mark Rothko’s art is his uncompromising non-objectivity of format and framework, mated with his thoroughly metaphoric handling of paint—a paint that suggests a variety of sensations. Were his pictorial substances more obtrusive or palpable, there would have been an equilibrium between the way they would have confined attention to themselves, and the way the formal configuration of soft-edged rectangles rules out alternative readings. There would have been, that is, a balance of self-assertions. As it is, Rothko has so etherealized the paint that it is impossible to see it as simple, inert matter. It gives, rather, the unlikely but inescapable impression of light, and thus drives home the discrepancy between two separate species of vision. What is more, this light, this incommensurable element, is reified in color so delicately that it is impossible to tell whether color is being dissolved in light, or light is being tinted and suffused with color.

This doubt can be put a little more precisely. Luminosity in Rothko is not a factor of heavily saturated hues (although his coloration is generally quite strongly realized). If the aim of the artist had been simply to paint brightly, with an effect of great light as an after-image, or consequence, he could have chosen combinations of the highest saturation, and thus imposed luminosity by dint of sheer brilliance. But this was not his choice. Equally, if he desired light as an end, he could have diluted saturation by massive doses of white or by the thinning of paint into such transparency that the white priming of the canvas, as in the dynamics of watercolor, would contribute to luminous effects. Yet Rothko clearly avoids this method as well. Regardless of the tendency any of his canvases may exemplify—high-keyed or low, warm or cool (or mixtures thereof)—the resolution of color-light moves indeterminately, yet almost equidistantly, between the shock of pure hue, always somehow, tangible and near at hand, and the immaterial scan of limitless pervasive luminosity. To put it briefly, color-light is a fresh ingredient, or rather illusion, in Rothko, emanating, now dimly, now powerfully, as an indissoluble presence in his art.

Of course, this word “emanating” has to be understood in a figurative, not a literal sense. For, since one is talking about paintings, immobile, inanimate objects, the nature of the stimuli strictly speaking prohibits the auto-luminosity which emanation implies. All objects reflect light but only a very few try to give the impression of emitting it on their own. There has to be some agreed-upon translation, a kind of understanding between artist and spectator, that the energy exists, and the differing sensations elicited are in continual process of transmission, even though, in fact, there can be no predetermined correlation between object and effect in themselves. This applies to all painting, and it merely emphasizes that artists are far more manipulators of contexts, than demonstrators of visual or optical knowledge, or packagers of natural facts. What kind of esthetic contract, then, do we have to enter with Rothko?

For practical purposes, there are three distinctions or classes of light situations affecting paintings. All works of art, naturally, are illuminated by extrinsic light and are critically conditioned by its color, quantity, and direction. By the nature of their luminous environment, they can be made to glow or recede, and their physical contrasts can be accentuated or diminished. As to the light contained by pictures themselves, it can be actual or simulated, but always, of course, it has to be reflected. If a colored surface is large and bright enough, and the light hitting it is strong and even, there will be some kind of radiant influence at least upon the immediately adjacent surroundings as well as a strong impact on the spectator’s eye. Whether this impact will be read as intrinsic light or not depends on two contexts: the decision of the artist to settle for the relatively low luminous value of colored pigments, or his effort to transcend that value, and to approximate natural light, even if the means at his disposal are still only those pigments.

Here inevitably arises the difference between subtractive and additive mixtures of color. The former refers to the physical mingling of pigments; the latter to the weaving of colored lights. Since the nineteenth century, in the work of the scientists Helmholtz and Rood, it has been known that the strictly optical mixing of hues produces far greater intensity than on the palette or canvas. But, unlike the adding of chromatic lights, whose primaries when combined yield white light, mere colored substances such as artist’s pigments emit only those wave lengths which in the eye cause sensation of the color in question. Other wave lengths are absorbed. Hence when two colors are mixed on a palette, the apparent resulting color is that caused by sensation in the eye by only those wave lengths that are not absorbed by either of the two mixed colors. The combination of the primaries in subtractive mixtures inevitably arrives at black, or a blackish tone. Needless to say, the advantages of additive mixture in strength and luminosity have haunted the tradition of modern art even as they appeared out of reach. What was additionally attractive about them was their suggestion of forces which are provocatively mobile, and are emitted and received from a never ending stream of energy. One result has been, in great measure, that there has been a tension between the specifically concrete, physical aspects of color, and the need to find a metaphorical, vicarious embodiment of that color.

At this point, it might be relevant to sketch a history of this tension. By isolating pure hues, but adjusting them in extraordinarily intimate and small-scaled passages as screens of colored dots, the Neo-Impressionists around Seurat hoped to insinuate enough multiple chromatic interactions that the dazzled eye would imply the energy of light, while the mind, constantly bidden to fuse minute inert stimuli, would interpret them as in some virtually fluent and transient connection with one another. The retina, theoretically, would manufacture the desired sensations. If this switchboard-like solution to the problem of additive-subtractive color had brilliant implications, it was also weighed down by two debilities. One, of course, was the naturalistic role of the color particles as they reconstituted images under certain light conditions; the other was the gradually increasing concreteness and materiality of the paint dabs as they formed themselves into decorative patterns. In effect, the metaphorical aspiration to suggest light, and the representational function of the color, clashed: a dilemma from which the only way out was an increasing abstraction.

It remained for the Fauves, not only to break relatively free from appearances, but to accentuate the pastose, worked up facture typical of the late mannerist phase of Nee-Impressionism. The Fauves, however, deflected the inquiry into the relation of color and light towards sensuous pleasure and emotional spontaneity. Even though the Fauve Matisse completed the drive to lift color off solids, and even though he was one of the very greatest colorists of the twentieth century, he declined any overtly metaphorical approach to light through chromatics. Color, in Matisse, forms itself into shapes, areas, and sometimes fields—all of which is just another way of saying that it tends to become a scintillating, interacting concatenation of things in themselves, whose charm is essentially physical. But still, unlike the Fauves, the later Matisse does not associate color with materiality (it is simply a thin, sometimes transparent, but even veil), and in that sense, his position on additive-subtractive mixtures is less straight-forward than one at first supposes.

Far more ambiguous, and hence relevant to this particular situation, is the Orphism of Robert Delaunay. Though he came out of the Neo-Impressionist heritage, and sporadically employed its techniques early in his career, Delaunay recognized that the problem of color-light could only be approached through a transfiguration of pictorial substance, in which an apparent optical fusion was pre-synthesized by the artist, rather than left to the responsibility of the beholder. He was, therefore, perfectly capable of incorporating hue combinations whose range suggested partite analysis of the spectrum, but whose embodiment literally reiterated passages of endless fluidity. Coming at a moment in which abstraction became possible, in fact, contributing greatly to it himself (along with Kupka), Delaunay instrumented in art a homogeneous tissue in which the only appearances are of light beams being refracted through unseen prisms. Such, at least, is the impression his modified, faceted Cubist framework—stressing translucent superimpositions and overlaps—wants to elicit.

In actuality, Delaunay’s structure is dualistic. At the same time as it implements containers to trap the immaterial and amorphous (hence form destroying) qualities of light, it sets up an almost illustrative context in which that very light, isolated and amplified, shines forth as a presence in the real world. If light in the picture is not perceived as an outright reflection of things, or of the reciprocal action of colored atmospheres, then it must somehow be made plausible in its own right. One aspect of that plausibility (the spaciousness of the luminous), requires a certain indifference to the picture plane as a fixed agent, and not surprisingly, Delaunay used such titles as Simultaneous Windows, for instance, to caption his paintings. While the plane is meant to present color and substance in much the same way as glass reveals it, it does not imply a simulated depth, but only confers vagueness and buoyancy on all location. Neither a point of reference, nor altogether denied, the plane becomes oddly blurred as an element in the composition.

Similarly, the factor of simultaneity is equivocal. Whether human vision grasps large separate or small merged images more quickly is a moot question, depending on a range of circumstances and variables. Delaunay, at any rate, gives one to feel that his air-soluble figurations are more immediately apprehended than the laboriously threaded composition of the Neo-Impressionists. But their far more tangible and scientifically oriented approach to light, by comparison, makes his imagery look exactly like that poetic evocation in color recognized by his contemporaries. In this sense, Delaunay’s antecedents are really those manipulators of chromatic tone and attenuation, Turner, Whistler, and Redon. Constant modulation, vapory paint handling, these are the hallmarks of artists who fuse the transience of observation or sensation with that of feeling, reproducing so frequently when their theme was light, a nostalgic recollection of luminosity rather than an equivalent of any specific response. And recollection is not simultaneous with perception, but rather unevenly and unpredictably starts out from it.

Yet, in the end, Delaunay’s art is distinctly twentieth century, and his sensibility is inevitably Post-Impressionist and Symbolist. For the discords of his oranges, greens, and yellows attack the viewer with a force completely removal from the tenebrous or exotic inflections of predecessors (not to speak of the cleavage between their fantasy, and his unconcealed celebration of modern technology). Moreover, the possibility of articulating a sense of light by color mechanics alone—advance and recession, movement, density, all determined through chromatic fluctuations—this possibility was first significantly opened by Delaunay in modern art. What it meant was the initiation of a continual process of re-creative viewing, in which the picture itself seems to alter its qualities independently of the spectator’s will.

But this exhilarating shimmer, which was at its height from 1911 to 1914, was an extremely delicate proposition. Thin washes and agitated brush tremors imparted a sense of “breathing” to the picture plane, yet overly deep or pale saturations—and these were a constant temptation—would disturb the color-light balance. A picture by Delaunay of this period will tend, although stop short of appearing to look, too watery or flushed. In its ideally intermediate zone, it suspends the material resolution of paint (with warm and cool, high keyed and deeply colored also evening out), in such a manner that the images float in a peculiar climate of expectancy. More than his overlapping facets, or bled-off hemicycles, this equilibrium of colored substances suggesting light, rendered a new metaphor of optical energy. Though Delaunay was later to re-assert the non-representational condition of his art, the fact is that, just as his facades regain their opacity, so his circular forms do eventually become discs (which, indeed, he called them), and his ambiguous lights redeposit themselves as the colors of surfaces. He became a twentieth-century abstractionist of a particularly synthetic, and as time wore on, academic persuasion.

The same cannot be said for Bonnard. Still, although he certainly belongs within the tradition of those who want to release color from its physical matrix, the means by which he went about this do not constitute an “advance” or an innovation in any clear cut sense of the word. Rather, Bonnard’s art, from the 1920s on, is a hybrid recapitulation of the various processes—Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist, Symbolist, Fauve, Orphic—whereby chromatic interactions give off flashing, pullulating waves that seem to deny their pigment origin. That he was able to re-think, or better, re-empathize these processes in fresh combinations, is a tribute, I think, to a certain perversity of the imagination, and also a flagrant evasiveness. In Bonnard, there are gaseous and watery passages, crusty scumbles, analytic color compounds, value deteriorations—all these in shifting, oscillating ratios, which while they may, in any local situation evoke additive mixtures, serve their major purpose as decorous excitation of the paint tissues themselves. One’s experience is transposed, by virtue of his incomplete or overemphatic luminous touches (what Picasso called a “potpourri of indecision”) from a consistent metaphor of light to vicarious alliances of movement and space as realized in voluptuous, erotic color. The intrusiveness of his paintstrokes and the scale and identification of his still figurative images, however, hold back Bannard’s luminosity, even if his deliberately high keyed schemes did not weaken the relative brightness of his canvases.

Through this brief outline, play the larger issues of the theme of color-light in modern art. Far from being separable, the aspects of the problem link together almost biologically, to create individually functioning, but always precarious pictorial metabolisms. Thus, the relationship between the abstract, and hence finite formal structure, and the insubstantial or ephemeral paint has to be reciprocal and self adjusting. And the spectrum of saturation changes, which can bring the color impact into quite forcefully concrete terms, or lift it up into luminous, but chromatically weaker levels, parallels this same connection. That is, it appears that one cannot heighten the allusiveness of pigment to additive mixture without proportionately negating the material aspect of color construction. Not only because of the difficulty of control, and the inevitability of compromise, but because color-light rejects the continuous twentieth century affirmation of the surface, have artists been reluctant to enter into its dialectic. It will not countenance a too agitated or restless brush handling, nor will it be effected by one flat or uniform in texture. This is to say that, the task demands a species of execution which activates a surface, but does not emphasize itself, and which must have illusionistic implications and yet not engage in the rendering of an illusion. Finally, all these counter-propositions hinge upon—such is the inevitability of the word—a paradox of subtle aggression, or passive belligerence, of a confusion between optical energy and the point of contact between a ground and substances that simulate that energy. Only then will the conceptual stasis of art be transfused by a magical respiration, or will it be softly and radiantly betrayed. Only then, to go further, will the spectator be enchanted enough to dream that betrayal.

Rothko’s share in this legacy, or his serious grappling with the dilemmas it provokes, is incontestable. But nothing he himself has said, and nothing in the moment he began to paint mature works, as an American dispensing with late Surrealist biomorphism in 1947, prepares one for his magisterial treatment of color-light. His watercolors executed immediately prior to this date are slightly vaporous or milky, high key and faintly registered. The succeeding oils, in their sudden depths and saturations, are in consequence, almost like negatives of these watercolors. The United States, to be sure, produces a number of porous, tonal painters (among contemporaries, Edwin Dickinson, Morris Graves, or Loren McIver come to mind), but rare are those who have fused that tonality with abstraction, or link it with modern European chromaticism. The case of Milton Avery is an ambiguous one, because, while his form obviously relates to Matisse in its shape consciousness, absence of drawing, and its disposition of flat, unmixed color areas, his imagery, compositional sense, and his naively sweetened choices of hue are far more in a native and personal grain. Avery, in fact, may be one of our few “soft” primitives; in any event, his work half in, and out, of a European tradition, exerted a great magnetism on Rothko’s. What the latter owes to the former is a feathery, quite thin, vibrationless (although by no means as untroubled) sense of treating paint, incarnated by washes that seem permeable from the outside rather than translucent to the white ground behind. Aside from this influence, the major circumstance that seems to have affected Rothko must have been the burgeoning estheticism (here concerned more with how beautifully paint could be applied than with how pictures could be put together), that typified Gorky, de Kooning, and Baziotes in the late forties.

Compared with Baziotes, in fact, Rothko’s directives become more apparent. The former disperses certain verifiable proportions of secondary colors into a mottled paint surface, to produce what amounts to optical greys or opalescent neutrals. Within an aura of muggy steam, Baziotes confects a color environment in which no hue is really lost, but rather, regardless of how delicately blended, stands out as one constituent of the overall mass, modifying another constituent. The final pictorial environment, therefore, is not so much induced, as specified. With Rothko, however, the end product, while far more of a downright spectrum hue, is pulled so much by its low undertones, that one feels a species of chromatic drainage which gives his colors—those plums, carmines, musky lemons and mentholated greens, their oblique radiance, and their equivocal cast. In the process of mixture (superimposed, but not systematic, transparent glazes), in which the attainment of hues in any one area is extremely intimate, there is a sense of withdrawal quite different from the relative neutralization of one hue by another. One receives the wave lengths emitted by his pictures as mutants rather than combinations of each other. A precipitation or declaration of an ultimate chromatic decision becomes strangely remote. Ironically, Baziotes’ greyed tonalities are far more explicit of the effect they want to present than Rothko’s apparently decisive, and always effulgent palette. Indeed, given the Surrealist origins of his style, Rothko’s indifference to effect, his strict absorption in the manual problems of handling and structure, insinuates its own mysterious potency into the coloration of his work. (This would apply more to the pictures after 1948, rather than to the more self consciously figurative ones before.) Baziotes will tone down the energy of all pictorial contrasts in order to better describe his irrationally dappled, misty space; Rothko will diminish certain contrasts, on the contrary, to conserve and make more precious, the energy that remains. This divergence partially explains the overcooked, over-finished look of many paintings by Baziotes, as they figuratively remove themselves to past time and subconscious places. In contrast, the Rothkos root the spectator’s gaze in the visual present, but extend and differentiate it, by withholding even an illusory distillation of their forces. The edges of the present lose their definition.

Despite the abstractness of his impulses, and despite the fairly empirical frame of his mind, he allows an inexplicable, tumid, flux of washy matter to upstage the discreteness of his art. To be sure, he has insisted that he has no interest in an outer reality, and that his “real” concern is only for shapes. But these shapes have to be manifested, and constantly adjusted to each other, through color.

Hence, this color for the moment—a moment which endures as long as the work is being created, is a necessary liability. If it gets tampered with or fussed over, it is because such structural matters as edges, value contrasts, placement, framing, and density pre-empt the chromatic problem. And yet, they infiltrate all their irregularities and stained pentimenti (here Rothko is certainly a member of first generation “action” painting) directly into the hetero-plastic color matrix—not least of all because he has emptied the picture facade of every image to which color could have been subordinated in the first place. The decision to soak thin paint as much as possible into the canvas ground made it conceivable to veil the inevitable fumbling of a work always in the operation of finding and correcting itself. But more than that, it kept color intensity from being too depleted by pressure changes which an impasto would only have emphasized. As a result, Rothko achieves a kind of unwitting drifting of color (reminiscent of Voltaire’s remark, “Le super flu, chose si nécessaire”) which is half testimony of active will, although in a different pictorial area, and half charged with a directionless, unmotivated glint of its own. It is the closest, perhaps, that color has yet come to duplicating that automatism to which Surrealist calligraphy aspired. Would it be too farfetched to imagine that the dilation of this color, its habit of resonating without any stimulus, is an equivalent of the celebrated all-overness of Pollock’s skeins? Possibly this was why Fairfield Porter could say that “Rothko divides without separating,” or that “if you add the parts together, the sum amounts to less than the whole.” Be that as it may, the surrogate tactility, and false muffling of Rothko’s palette spawn apparitional environments typified by a new form of chromatic light.

I use this word “new” hesitantly because there is a sense in which the light in Rothko depends radically on that which is its opposite—darkness, surely a conventional enough element in itself. Speaking very generally, the fact remains that the further, or simply the longer, one looks at the pictures of the last ten years (or even some of the high-keyed ones of the early fifties as well), the more one is convinced that they are shored up by ultimately impermeable, murky tones. Their base, in other words, blocks instead of opens out, luminous energy and space behind the paint screens. (Although many pictures will contain sections of the exact opposite, to increase their complexity.) The “deeper” the penetration of the eye, the greater the loss or breakdown of this energy (and yet, for that very reason, the more necessity there is to penetrate and “get ahead” of the seeming dissolution). If Rothko achieves this by fairly observable means—scumbling scrims of higher upon lower valued color—its presence can be very unexpected.

For one thing, light-dark foils can and often do, occur as layers of the same area, instead of being joined side by side. (Although he retains this normative use of chiaroscuro too, when it suits his purpose.) Contrary to the usual impression, he is not pre-eminently a wet-in-wet or passage painter. Transitions occur more because he extinguishes contrasts than through the corporeal intermingling of tones. For this, and other reasons which follow, a background lightness had to be disavowed, or at least de-systematized. One knows, for instance, that a dark mass placed against a bright environment will mutually enhance their values, but blacken the

mass at the expense of its chromatic identity. By reversing this process, that is by bleeding the dark through the light, Rothko can hold on to his color more effectively, but only keep from degrading it by calculatedly excessive saturations. It was a choice of giving into a paleness—relieved by dark profiled shapes—or of risking a muddiness in the hope of maintaining a genuine chromatic form. Opting for the latter, Rothko’s largeness of scale, elimination of imagery, and boldness of palette become fore-ordained compensations for the attrition of light. The mastery of such compensations—and perhaps Rothko’s work is the first in a long time to make us realize to what an excruciating degree art can be dependent on compensations—permits him to explore cool and deep colors—maroons and charcoals—in the same spirit as the earlier warm and light hues. For, no matter how far they may sink in value, such colors do not increase in physical density, and do not become any heavier looking. The irony of this whole development, in which the background comes forward to displace its diaphanous veils {which, in turn, now sometimes shrink and brighten to become “holes” in the facade), the irony is that Rothko reverses the whole tradition of color-light, and of the longing for additive mixture, by positing it on shadow!

But the most incredulous thing about this artist, is that one cannot accept his pictures as being either light or dark, but only as auto-luminous. Penumbral as they may be, they gestate a chromatic glow which no amount of visual inhalation will ever deplete. No doubt it was an intimation of how little their manipulated elements account for their effect, that led Elaine de Kooning to speak of these paintings as “tinted, hallucinated cloths.” The disbelief which they provoke revolves around their ability to make an abstraction that encounters no appearance from the outer world deny itself even as it is catalyzed into existence. Despite what indirect affinity he may have with French painting such as Delaunay’s, the content of Rothko’s art differs hugely from its nominal precedents. The French stopped short of complete abstraction, and did not follow up their ideas to their extreme consequence because they still wanted to represent color-light as part of a world other than—if still contained by—the object which is a canvas. Under the circumstances, it was proper that their compositions stressed variously completed activities and a kind of sentient advance. But Rothko, quite naturally if perhaps somewhat unconsciously, equates the whole pictorial ground with the statement—so that there is no longer any question of residual containment or representation. Color, tone, light, space, the physical support: all these disparate things have a mutual, open-ended identity despite themselves. In view of the wholly expansive, non-objective properties of his art, its underlying quietude, recessiveness, and privacy become more clearly functional than they once seemed.

Rothko’s work draws away from us because it is more concerned with the mysteries of its own operations, and how they may be equilibrated to give the most satisfaction to its creator, than it is with the establishment of conventions whereby beholders can apprehend color-light in an unprecedented way. He may very well have synthesized the virtually inert, and the figuratively mobile materials of pictorial luminosity in a very comprehensive manner, but his psychological indifference to his audience makes them a point at issue all over again. The poise and composure of paintings which almost seam sufficient unto themselves, or, as Robert Goldwater put it, to “exist without the observer,” is extremely seductive, but also very baffling. Unlike our experience of Ad Reinhardt, whose exceeding subtleties are very directive, with Rothko we don’t quite know where to “go” or how to look, or on what terms we can become more intimate with his art—for all the immediate, overwhelming sensuous pleasure he provides. In the words of George Dennison: “All forms and all motions are imminent. And just because of this, they are rigorously forbidden. Our imagination becomes part of the possible, attuned and inspired; but inoperative. It does not wreak its particulars upon the image, or reach the consummation of understanding, but it is suspended, as it were, before the astounding wealth that so sadly vanishes with the first impulse of selection.” By manifesting its own plenitude, but holding back to contemplate it for itself, Rothko’s art frequently produces an emotion like nothing so much as a ravished resentment. There is no better illustration of this than the comment of an English writer, Jasper Rose “. . . though sensuously gratifying and persuasive, these pictures are intellectually frustrating, and ultimately spiritually enervating. They tell one nothing; they bounce back one’s questions with complete impassiveness; they are indifferent as to how one construes them. Like the beauty of some women, their beauty is quite meaningless. It intrigues, it entices, it begets futile daydreams. Sooner or later one realizes that to take it very seriously is a waste of time.” Perhaps it is best to let it go at that, acknowledging as we do, that even at its highest, art leaves us unfulfilled. And yet, how can one live without the hopes and fantasies, of which art is a reflection?

Max Kozloff