New York

Mark Rothko

Marlborough | Chelsea

Marlborough’s recent show of paintings by Mark Rothko was apparently intended to culminate in the small separate room which contained four of the artist’s last works. Perhaps the isolation of the last paintings, the most austere and ungenerous of Rothko’s career, was meant as an honorific gesture, but the effect of it was cheaply dramatic. The sepulchral atmosphere of the small room did depend upon the paintings, but it was made by the installation to seem to be the point of the paintings, a bit of stagecraft that Rothko would undoubtedly have thought revolting. Worse, of course, was the fact that this arrangement seemed to encourage vulgar speculation as to the artist’s reasons for suicide (one had only to listen to the comments of visitors when in the small room), and thus it seemed subtly to traduce the genuine solemnity of much of Rothko’s output.

The paintings dated 1970 are almost entirely without color; they are black, white, and gray with suggestions of dun underpainting beneath the gray. Perhaps partly due to their isolation in the show, these paintings appeared to be the most nearly figurative Rothko had done since the late ’40s. Each is composed of a large black area above and a lesser gray area below with traces of white stumbled along the gray side of their common border; the last paintings suggested landscapes or rather a thinking about landscape. Also common to these paintings was a uniform, narrow white margin of about one inch; there was one exception in which the side margins were doubled, the inner halves being primed but unpainted.

This exhibition was a dubious basis for reckoning the quality of Rothko’s last works, but their evident force was enough to make it seem worthwhile thinking about the bulk of Rothko’s work in relation to landscape painting. I have always seen Rothko’s color areas as expanding infinitesimally, as if performing some very gradual diastole which one always misses because of the very impatience to see it. This sense of expansion which seems to pertain to the abstractness of color, its independence of figure, and which would seem to broaden the real surface, is not really accounted for by observations about Rothko’s choice of hues or the tense relations between internal boundaries and the framing edge. I think it may have more to do with the frontality of forms in Rothko’s canvases: in Black, Brown on Maroon (1957) or Yellow, Blue on Orange (1955), for instance, it is possible to see that while the flatness of the surface is not compromised, the frontality of the forms is something decided upon by the eye, not simply stated. What I suggest is that the frontality of Rothko’s forms is felt relative to a fictive plane like that through which one looks into many 19th-century American landscape paintings, though in the latter case this plane conventionally ended at the limits of the canvas. In the experience of Rothko’s paintings the fictive plane is on the hither side of the canvas and its limits are as undefined as those of the visual field at any moment; this may have something to do as well with the balance so frequently achieved between painted horizontality and literal verticality in Rothko’s canvases.

Seeing through the fictive plane assumes the ability to see pictures, and the faculty for looking through the plane when it isn’t “there” (i.e. when not looking at paintings) is the ability to see in the world landscapes and such. But the landscape seems to be a privileged pictorial mode in the sense that it is most closely identified simply with seeing; it is perhaps the most assimilable sort of organization of the visible that Western art teaches. According to the view I have sketched, many of Rothko’s paintings offer, so to speak, a pre-figural experience, not of landscape, nor of landscape painting, but of their common reality.

In the last paintings, the fictive plane has been identified with the real surface without being cancelled. All atmospheric color has been removed; where light formerly seemed to emanate from the surface, here it is all incident. One is aware that light stops at the surface and yet one seems to see further—not an uncommon experience for people who look at paintings; but here it is disturbing. The last paintings realize a possibility of the concept of abstract painting which nobody has been able to take seriously for a long time: they are literally pictures of nothing.

Kenneth Baker