Rothko’s Magic

Walking thoughtfully through one of the great art museums, you come across this:



Rothko No. 14 at SF-MoMA

It could be you dislike “abstract art” and keep right on walking until you are out of the room; perhaps you even accelerate your pace. But maybe too, no matter your distaste for abstract art, in this case, you get hooked.  The painting seems to call you over.

There’s a bench in front of the big canvas. You sit down. Something there is…

ImageNo. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

It is a large canvas, half as big as the wall. “I make them big,” said Rothko, “because I want the viewer to feel enveloped within the painting. He should move close to it and get right inside.”

You are sitting only a few feet from the picture and, in fact, it starts to talk. Not with language, of course, but with a strange glow or flimmer or aura that you have never seen or felt in any other painting.  It is as though you look into a dark, yet luminous room, or at a cloud, or across a sea …

What the devil? How does Rothko do that?


Horizontal rectangles of color on a big field, like stripes across a flag. The edges of the rectangles look torn. The colors are pretty but the combinations unusual—they seem to collide or flirt with each other. Look at one rectangle for a moment, get into it, feel its blue or its orange, then look up or down at the one above or below it and get a little shock as you realize you have jumped the fence and are trespassing on another’s property. You were in a desert getting the sun and now suddenly you find yourself in a forest.

ImageFour Darks in Red, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art

The colors of the rectangles vary in intensity. Some are thin and dim, others luminous. The color is not applied uniformly: here, there is a thick, almost opaque patch of it; there, only what is left after a quick pass with the brush, and underneath you see another color peeping through.

The pictures look as though they were painted in a hurry, as if they were sketches made just at the moment when their idea first occurred to Rothko. So there is imprecision everywhere and apparent correction. That gives a freshness to the paintings and a feel of traveling, not yet arriving.

ImageNo. 3/No. 13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949, 85 3/8″ × 65″ (216.5 × 164.8 cm), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art.

The longer you look, the better you realize how intentional everything is, how nothing has been left to accident. The spaces between the rectangles, each irregularity of line or tone has been studied and has its place in the effect. Though at first you might suppose Rothko “merely” took brushes dripping with different colored paint and swept them across the canvas, soon you realize that the paintings are the result of much experimenting and thought.


Rothko said he learned from Matisse, another genius with color. Matisse wrote:

“…color goes beyond itself: if you confine it within some curved black line, say, you are destroying it (from the point of view of this color language) because you are robbing it of all its expansive potential. Color does not have to appear in a prescribed form. For it to do so is not even desirable. But what does matter is the chance to expand. Once color reaches a point that is only slightly beyond its limits, this expansive power takes effect—a kind of neutral zone comes into being where the neighboring color has to enter once it has reached the extent of its expansion. When that happens you could say the paint breathes.”


Rothko’s aim

.He declared that his aim was to address the spirit and the emotions of the viewer. He came to believe that his blocks of colors could “free unconscious energies” and “relieve modern man of his spiritual emptiness.” They could sooth his tortured soul and take him into a land of peace and beauty.

ImageUntitled (Black on Grey), 1970

He counts a lot on the viewer. “A picture,” he wrote, “lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.”  Beauty isn’t the only thing in the eye of the beholder. Artists presuppose a lot of other things in him. The bigger his inner life, the better the artist’s chance of reaching him. Some have vast spiritual worlds inside, with a large population of kindred souls, broad landscapes with mystic mountains and deep seas. By thinking and reading they have extended the rich land they were born with, cultivated it, and established settlements. These are the people an artist wants to show his pictures to. Unless they have strict border controls in the form of prejudices or irrational obstacles, his work can move right in, move around freely, and make itself at home.


Many other artists, especially abstract artists, have declared that their aim was to grace their viewers with a spiritual experience. Matisse wrote: “I am after an art of equilibrium and purity, an art that neither unsettles nor confuses. I would like people who are weary, stressed, and broken to find peace and tranquillity as they look at my pictures.”


When at the end of his career Rothko finally became famous and began to sell his work, he started to worry that people did not understand it and were buying it only as an investment or because it had come into fashion. He was afraid his pretty colors were misleading people about his intentions. “I am not an abstractionist,” he snarled, “and I’m tired of being called a great colorist…My aim is to express basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom…. Color is only an instrument. The fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”


Rothko’s Depression

The color and mood of his paintings changed in the last years. They got darker and darker as “tragedy, ecstacy, and doom” became their stated message.

ImageRothko Chapel in Houston, Texas

Rothko accepted a commission to paint  religious paintings for a chapel designed specifically for their exhibition and contemplation. They were black, dark gray or dark brown.  Some visitors delight in the depth of feeling and “transcendence” they experience as they sit on the benches in the chapel; others either doze off dreamily in contemplation or slump into a willful depression. “The secret to transcendence is the tragic,” said Rothko.


To many, abstract art is handicapped by its absence of cultural elements. The artist can perhaps set free the imagination of the viewer but then lacks the means to control its direction. “Our function as artists,” wrote Rothko in a famous proclamation, “ is to make the viewer see our way, not his.” In these last works, heavy with the artist’s depression, Rothko seems to have gone too far; he bullies the imagination of his viewer with a sort of dictatorial “pronouncement”.


But in his best work, his handling of a painter’s rhetorical devices is brilliant; his eloquence is overpowering. There is, as Robert Hughes put it,  “foreboding and sadness” in some of the paintings and an “exquisite and joyful luminosity” in others. Few other abstract artists have ever been able to make paintings that do what his do. Their attraction cannot be explained by an examination of the elements and their arrangement. There is the magic “something else” of great art— the call to come away from the moment, the invitation to another world, the soothing delight of the beautiful and the mysterious.


Photo_of_Mark_Rothko_by_James_Scott_in_1959 Photo of Mark Rothko by James Scott in 1959



For photos, all displayed here, see fair use posting here.

Rothko by Jacob Baal-Teshuva. Taschen, 2003

Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malévich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still by John Golding, Trustees of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000

Matisse by Volkmar Essers, Barnes and Nobles Books, 1996

Wikipedia biography of Mark Rothko


This entry was posted in abstract art, abstract expressionists, aesthetics, architecture, art, art history, Beauty, great artists, Matisse, painting, Rothko, Rothko Chapel. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Rothko’s Magic

  1. johnahancock says:

    I applaud your choice of Rothko. This is quite a good job synthesizing Rothko’s words, those of Robert Hughes … and your own observations. Nicely done. Thank you for posting this.

    • 100swallows says:

      Johnahankock: Thanks, John. I realize this is quite a jump from the other paintings and sculpture talked about here. Rothko’s work has fascinated me since the first time I saw it and I think he belongs among the Best Artists.

      • johnahancock says:

        I agree.
        Many artist you write about are “classical” in terms of their use of line, form, and design. But Rothko has a classical quality … though it is less obvious at first. Much like LeCorbusier’s architecture (ie the Villa Savoye) is very much classical in its use of formal design.

  2. Rothko was an inept painter who botched most of his own paintings. A handful of years after finishing the panels for the Rothko Chapel, they were already showing signs of degradation. The panels he painted for Harvard had to be removed less than 20 years later because sun had discolored them. Later they discovered Rothko had just ran out of paint and went out and bought a different brand from the nearest supplier, which led to the panels’ rapid degradation. True devotion to the craft… oh, wait, he knew no craft; he just had angst, and then grabbed a brush and put some color on a canvas without much effort. If Duchamp is ever judged for his many crimes against modern art, Rothko will probably be used as the most damning evidence against him.

  3. will says:

    Hello Swallows,
    Congratulations once again for another excellent note. I entirely agree with your depiction of Rothko’s art. I am interested to see (through Miguel(St. Orberose) what differences in judgement can happen about great artists. I take this as a sign of their greatness.
    I am not a fan of modern art. Years ago, following the advice of a friend, I visited a big exhibition about Rothko in Paris Modern Art Museum. I came in cold and reluctant, and went out almost weeping and completely overwhelmed. His red and yellow paintings impressed me as the most wonderful colors I have ever seen.
    The exhibition was displayed in a sort of chronological order, starting with the bright colored canvasses, then showing the black stripe at the bottom growing broader and gradually filling most of the surface until just a narrow daylight band was left at the very top – the end of his own life.
    Far from plain ‘botching’, his painting was full of thought, study and science of colors. To me, he is the real innovator in modern painting, because he chose to work on the color by itself, and succeeded in using it as a medium for conveying feelings of a rare intensity. Since this exhibition, I changed my view about modern art, and became more ready to consider it. However so far, I have not seen anyone but Rothko in it who can belong to the community of the great Masters of Paintings of all times.
    Best Regards

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: Thanks, Will. You are luckier than I. I’ve seen few paintings by Rothko but they were enough to seduce me. Rothko was full of inquietudes, as we say in Spanish, and his philosophizing often went beyond or afield of his work, which, as Hughes put it, “ultimately could not support the meaning he wanted to give it.” But so what? I remember what Picasso (no friend of yours, I know) said: something like: “we artists have our theories and our aims but then we paint and what comes out, comes out.” Rothko had a genius’ sense of color. And his paintings, at least the best of them, really do delight and mesmerize. Maybe, as some say, they are too sugary (color alone would delight) or the device of putting colors side-by-side to tantalize or puzzle is a “cheap” trick. But he does it well and it works. Who else can produce art with color alone? Like music, it reaches the imagination and heart directly.

  4. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,
    I have to commend, and applaud, you on taking on such a large and unfamiliar subject.Though I’ve been an abstract artist for most of my life(no longer though) you would think I’d be a big fan of Rothko. Oddly enough I never was when I was enthralled with so much other abstract art. I’m not sure why that was. People like Gorky, Stuart Davis, Matisse, Picasso, Diebenkorn all were much more in the forefront of my interests. Even Hans Hoffman, another colorist, was much more appealing at the time.

    But when I’ve seen his work in reproduction over the last few years I’ve been much more taken with it. As I think about it though I wonder if it’s due to the small scale that I like them more. They’re no longer large enough to bully me.

    In contrast two of my favorite abstact painters, Matisse and Diebenkorn, also did very large canvases. The quote from Matisee on color expansion makes perfect sense. And yet you never feel bullied by either. Since I haven’t sat in front of a Rothko in a very long time it’s hard to know just how he’d strike me now.

    For me though the notion of color taking on a life of its own is I think one of the central things a viewer needs to appreciate in order to enjoy so much of modern art. I wonder if it might not be similar in some ways to the way that rhythm became so important in jazz, sometimes to the detriment of melody and harmony. If you could listen to the complex rythmns it was a revelation.If all you noticed was the lack of melody then you just didn’t like jazz. I’m thinking of many people’s reaction to bebop when it started.

    To me it’s the same with color. Particularly when it is in large areas as in Matisse or Diebenkorn it tends to sweep over you. In this sense I think it’s brought a new vocabulary to art. Rothko seems to be in that school even if he denies it. Though as I said I’ve never been a real student of Rothko. I think also that the almost metaphysical goals that he wrote about, like others of his time, seemed just a bit too much to me. Like forcing art to become religion. I wonder if this also affected my reaction to him.

    Sadly I think the Pop Artists also reacted against it in him and others. I sadly because to me what they offered is a much skimpier substitute, irony notwithstanding.

    Curiously two major wildlife artists ot the twentieth century, Robert Bateman and Bob Kuhn both mentioned how much they were influenced by Rothko. To me that shows one of the curious aspects of art: the artist may know exactly what he intends. But once his art is in the world it make be taken as an inspiration for thoroughly different things.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Thanks. I was curious to hear from you because I remembered that you were an abstract artist for a long time and so must have had to come to terms with Rothko’s work. And now the surprise—that he wasn’t one of your favorites. I myself have wondered about the “legitimacy” of his huge canvasses and whether they weren’t an abuse of the viewer. Rothko wrote that with them he meant to increase intimacy; but when he went so far as that Black Chapel of his, it was as though he rather meant to kidnap and enclose the viewer for a “treatment”. Artists have often tried to “impress”a viewer or transmit a feeling but Rothko’s aim was to entrance.

      He wasn’t believable when he said he wasn’t a colorist. It was clear he was reacting to what he considered a misunderstanding of his work. He wanted credit for more than just color—one can imagine what a face he put on when he heard people compliment him on his beautiful colors when he wanted to hear them say: “Oh, Mark, how your painting transported me! It was like a magic carpet or a window onto a better world or a sort of ghost of my past and future. (How much do I owe you?).”
      [This last wisecrack is not fair to Rothko. Although men like Bernard Malamud thought he overcharged for some sketches, Rothko can hardly be accused of painting to make money. He was as poor as a monk most of his life because of his real priority.]

      Your comparison of his use of color, only color, with the dominating rhythm of jazz is very suggestive. It also makes me think about jazz and music in general. I have read a critic speaking about how the absence of cultural elements in abstract art allows it, like music, to speak directly to the feelings and how Rothko’s “counter-pointing” with colors can be enjoyed like a concert. Now you´ve taken the comparison further and talk about the elements of music. One would think that, in its origin, rhythm preceded the others, and, in signs or representations, drawing preceded color; but who knows. In any case, if used on its own, color would have had a specific meaning, a purpose—it wouldn’t have been intended to inspire free association, would it? Did you ever write a statement of your aims as an abstract artist?

      It is strange to hear that wildlife artists were influenced by Rothko. They must mean that through him they recognized the importance of color, maybe? You’d think they wouldn’t need Rothko’s work to discover that. I hope they didn ‘t mean that they resolved afterwards to impose a spiritual dimension on their paintings.
      That curious aspect of art you mention is not only of art. Nietzsche or someone said that the great works of philosophy are never taken whole by future philosophers, who rather use the ruins or pieces of the great edifice to build their own. After all, though historians of these fields like to show a progression and a “passing of the torch” from genius to genius, their works don’t overlap exactly, they don’t address the same problems—each thinker goes his own way: there is no straight road through the history of thought, but a field of garden patches.

  5. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,

    Oddly enough as I’ve been thinking about responding to this, particularly in terms of color, I happened upon a blog that showed the prints of some children that the author was teaching. Though there was some line there seemed to be much more than line a love of color.

    It reinforced the idea that color is almost a primeval element, that it speaks to the feelings first and foremost. You ask about Bob Kuhn, one of the wildlife artists I mention. Here’s what he says in ‘Bob Kuhn: Drawing on Instinct’ from University of Oklahoma Press: “I tell young people that if a wildlife artist only examines the work of other wildlife artists, he is going to attain a narrow view of what he should be considering…I have always had an emotion response to color. Rothko was a genius in expressing color through design and shape. He could fill a room with mood based only on bands of paint.”

    The quote of Matisse mentioned in your post is I think the most telling: color goes beyond itself. Matisse’s work seemed to really show this. There are paintings of his that start off with a recognizable subject then let color take over and go where it will. Politicians and sociologists among others talk about the difficulty of taking back freedom from someone once they’ve had a taste for it. I think the same thing is true of color and some of the other freedoms attained by abstract art. Once you’ve seen it and experienced it there’s often a desire to keep it in your work. You just can’t forget or ignore it.

    This is of course all speculation. But my guess is that this is why Kuhn took liberties with color, just as Matisse did. I think in my own work it’s why I’m always a bit hesitant to stay too realistic, both in terms of form and color. So it’s not that wildlife artists were not already aware of color, as any artist more or less has to be, but that they’d never seen it used with such freedom before.

    On the other hand Matisse also complained about his imitators and how they seemed to misunderstand what he was doing. To me that is the great danger of the freedom that Matisse, Rothko, Pollock or many others attained. Many people don’t understand the discipline that led to it. So much of later 20th century art seems limited by a sense of false freedom and no sense of the discipline that led to the freedom. To me the ‘anything goes’ style of late 20th century art is something to work against, to gain freedom from.

    I’d rather spend my time making art than theorizing about it and so I have limited time for theorizing, much as I love it. But it’s interesting to me that Pollock started returning to recognizable shapes in his work towards the end of his life. I wonder why? Perhaps he felt that just painting nothing and everything was just too much of a burden. His freedom was more freedom of design and movement I think than that of color. But still you have to wonder if at some point he didn’t realize that too much freedom was really limiting.

    You wonder if line preceded color in the work of artists. In my own work I find a dual impulse, if not more than dual!: to express myself through color and all the other means of art, and to capture what I see on paper or canvas, primarily through line. I go back and forth with them. That’s what I found so interesting about the children’s prints: they really seemed more about color. So maybe line does not precede color in man’s artistic history? Who knows? But it sure is fun to think about!

  6. will says:

    Thank you, Swallows and Ken, for this discussion where I learnt a lot. First, about Rothko himself, from whom as a person I did not know anything up to now. This is strange I realize, since generally, when I discover the work of an artist or a writer which I enjoy, I want to know everything about him and about his works. It seems that the paintings I had seen from this Rothko exhibition produced such a strong impression on me that I considered them for themselves, and forgot about learning about the author…
    In fact, I had a the same singular experience in music with Shostakovich. I discovered him like Rothko, completely unprepared, at the Queen Elizabeth Music Contest in Brussels. I am not a great fan of contemporary music ( decidedly I must have a problem with the art of our time!). Most of the program of the Contest was classical (Mozart, Haydn,Beethoven and Schubert). But one competitor has chosen a Shostakovich Violin concerto, which hit me directly deep inside. And since then, I feel a strong emotion with this composer, while remaining insensitive to most of the other modern musicians (I put jazz apart, which I love- by the way, I feel your analogy with the emphasis on rhythm is quite pertinent, Ken)
    There are works of art that overwhelm you by surprise. This is a rare and precious experience, which is one of the many treasures of the quest to Art.

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: Thanks. I’m like you (you generally)—I go to read about the man whose book or painting I like. You know that’s very often disappointing. It’s better not to read up on the characters of such greats as Bernini or Picasso or Caravaggio or Leoni or many of the so-and-sos. I want to see their faces too. Schopenhauer thought nature scribes a man’s character on his face. All the nobility of a great man is there and all the evil of the crook, all the vulgarity of the common sort, etc. The trouble is, he says, we just don’t know how to read what nature wrote. Yeah. I don’t anyway. But seeing the contrast between what you imagined and what there is is also instructive. I’m like you in music, though I get bored with most jazz.

  7. Ken Januski says:

    I think that you’re right about being overwhelmed by surprise, Will. It’s happened to me too. I don’t expect to like something at all and them am completely taken with it. I guess that’s how we learn!

  8. cantueso says:

    This text on Rothko looks good. The pictures have a hypnotic quality, bewitching. So one had better be careful. The black chapel paintings are the wrong thing to try.

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