rothko matters


Rothko was interested in the simplified forms that inhabited his paintings, the spread of pigment across the canvas, and how different coloured areas meet; he was also much concerned with the layering of his paintings, from the bare canvas up. He painted from the inside out. Atmospheric photographs of the artist have him seated before an incomplete canvas, smoking and looking into the painted void. Somewhere in the world, an abstract painter is undoubtedly doing the same thing right now. The difference is that it is impossible to do this today without method-acting Rothko. Even he staged these scenes, for the photographer Hans Namuth.

During the 1960s, Rothko’s paintings become poised between the materiality of their surfaces and forms, and the emergence of an image, even if it is an image of nothingness, or an image denied: a blank black screen, or a simple near-horizontal division which we unavoidably see as a horizon, between grey and brown, or black and grey. Rothko cut out the clutter, and in his later work tried to make every single thing count. Someone once said of American abstract painting that Barnett Newman closed the door, Rothko pulled down the blind and Ad Reinhardt turned off the light. Rothko was much vexed by Reinhardt’s black-on-black paintings, with their exquisite impenetrability, their cruciform shapes revealed only as one’s eyes grow attuned to their close tones. Rothko was undoubtedly jealous of them, and even had an affair with Reinhardt’s widow.

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