ART-ICLE.FR, le site de Léon Mychkine (Doppelgänger), écrivain, Docteur en Philosophie, chercheur indépendant, critique d’art théoricien, membre de l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art (AICA-France)

Exhibiting Rothko at Fondation Vuitton. Writing nonsense. Why Rothko is not an “abstract” painter

Everyone writes that Rothko became an abstract painter, from 1946 onwards (we wonder why this date? But we’ll come back to that in a later article), and everyone says he’s a master of abstract art. The owner of the Fondation Vuitton, Mr. Arnault, writes in the Press Kit (hereinafter PK): “When, in an abstract painting by Rothko, without any figurative reference, this or that color reminds us of another of his works…”. And then again: “From 1946 onwards, Rothko made a decisive turn towards abstraction, the first phase of which was the ‘Multiformes’…”. Mrs. Pagé, exhibition curator: “The years 1945-1949 saw a decisive shift towards abstraction, with paintings freed from the easel classified as ‘Multiformes’.” Best of all, if we may say so, is when in the same PK we find quotes from Rothko, including this one: “My art is not abstract, it lives and breathes” (!) And his own son, Christopher Rothko, writes: “Similarly, in the 1950s, as his works became manifestly abstract, he proclaimed that he was not an abstract painter.” Tell us more, Mr. Christopher…     

It’s one way or the other: either Mark Rothko was talking nonsense, i.e., he didn’t even know how to qualify his own works, or his writings and words are being ignored (as we’re about to find out). Of course, when such judgements are made by prominent figures, even the painter’s own son, it’s tempting to fall back on what appear to be arguments of authority. But who is the authority here? Is it not Mark Rothko himself? If we take the words and writings of artists seriously — as we do — then we can’t pretend Rothko never said that. In “Notes from an interview by William Seitz, January 22, 1952”, we find the painter saying:   

“Abstract art never interested me ; I always painted realistically. My present paintings are realistic. When I thought symbols were [the best means of conveying meaning] I used them. When I felt figures were, I used them.”

The question is: what do we do with it?

It can’t be ignored. Yet everyone seems to be ignoring it, from the curators to the press. Inexhaustive anthology: Connaissance des arts: “As early as 1946, Rothko’s surrealist compositions were succeeded by abstraction”. /// France info: “And then all of a sudden, between 1946 and 1948, he made a radical turn towards total abstraction.” /// Télérama: “It wasn’t until 1949 that the American painter, then aged 46, found his abstract form, which varied very little until his death..” /// Les Inrocks: “Rothko began his turn towards abstraction in 1946…”. (one has read the PK) /// France Culture: “… the exhibition devoted to one of the masters of abstract art […] from the figurative works of his beginnings in the 1930s to the abstraction that defines his work today.” Don’t say no more!

We can legitimately ask why we use sometimes an epithet, sometimes a noun, a category, that didn’t concern Rothko in the first place. One answer that comes to mind is: “To say that it’s abstract is simple, it speaks to everyone.” “Saying it’s abstract is bound to bring people in. Everyone loves abstract painting” (except Jean Clair). “But to say it’s abstract painting is to contradict Rothko”. “Who cares?, he’s dead. And even his son agrees that it’s abstract painting. His son!” Yes, well, it’s his son, it’s not Markuss Rotkovičs, born in Latvia, 1903-1970, aka Mark Rothko.

Going against the doxa, as is often the case, I maintain that we must take Rothko’s ideas literally, and work with them, starting from them. To take this statement, this thought, literally is to complicate the matter, it takes time, reflection, confronting aporias; it’s much more complicated. But artists are not necessarily around to enunciate or produce platitudes. In addition, of course, to say that Rothko’s paintings from 1946 onwards (if the date makes sense, and it’s not certain) are not abstract may seem counter-intuitive. But is art a matter of intuition? The question, then, is how to look at a Rothko painting without falling into the trap of abstract judgment, which, ultimately, comes down to a form of intellectual laziness as much as a comfort zone? 

Mark Rothko,“Untitled (Titulurik gabea)”, 1952–53, oil on canvas, 9 feet 10 1/8 inches x 14 feet 6 3/16 inches, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

How can we resist the cognitive bias that instantly validates such a painting as “abstract”? The only answer, once again, comes from Rothko. He tells us that the only thing he’s interested in is expressing emotions, and that he’s not in the abstract, but in realism. On the basis of this, and subject to further developments, we may well admit that emotion is not an abstraction, and that if the painter succeeds in injecting emotion into his medium, then, in fact, this medium does not produce abstraction, but concreteness. In other words, it’s concrete art (no pun intended). In his book Conversations with Artists (1961), Selden Rodman quotes Rothko:

“You’re an abstractionist to me”, I said. You’re a master of color harmonies and relationships on a monumental scale. Do you deny that ?

— I do. I’m not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else.”

— Then what is it you’re expressing ?

— I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. I communicate them more directly than your friend Ben Shahn, who is essentially a journalist with, sometimes, moderately interesting surrealist overtones. 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 relationships, then you miss the point!”

Well, that’s clearer. If you don’t feel emotion when you look at a Rothko painting, you’ve missed out. Not for him, because, as he can testify, he has seen visitors cry in front of his paintings. Such an argument is both authoritative and authentic, isn’t it? Then, of course, things get complicated.  

Rothko couldn’t care less about expressing this or that color, this or that relationship. What motivates him is the expressibility of emotion. Emotion is concrete. When we say “I’m moved”, “I’m embarrassed”, “I’m sad”, “I’m upset”, “I feel everything”, “I’m in love”, etc., we’re talking about the concreteness of feelings, and this concreteness is not primarily cosa mentale, but causa fisica. As far back as the 1920s, the British neurologist Henry Head and his team  studied the manifestation of emotion, writing that it originates in the viscera. Today, we know that there is a second brain in the human being, the Enteric Nervous System (the innervation of the digestive tract), which is said to comprise at least 500 million neurons, in almost constant dialogue with the Central Nervous System. In Rothko’s time, the ENS had not yet been formally discovered, but it was to this peculiar brain that his painting was primarily addressed. 

Readers will have realized that the description of Mark Rothko as an abstract painter is wrong. Emotion is not abstract. When you’re moved, it’s not an abstraction, it’s real. “Real” is when you feel an upheaval in your whole body, an increase in body heat, discomfort, a “presence” in your belly, your viscera, that radiates out. So emotion is first and foremost physical, not a priori intellectual. In other words, the tearful people Rothko saw in front of his canvases were not art thinkers or intellectuals; they were ordinary visitors, the curious, amateurs. And then, all of a sudden, in front of this or that painting, wham! you burst into tears. And, immediately afterwards, we wonder what’s happened to us, if anything, while remembering that emotion is, in its own way, the result of thought. The visitors to whom this has happened have picked up the message. And it is in this processual order that Rothko’s art must be understood.

PS. I didn’t visit the exhibition because I’m boycotting the Fondation Vuitton. The reason for this will be explained much better than I can by Challenges magazine, here. When the ogre-millardaire will have reimbursed the taxpayers (“next life”), I’ll set foot there again. (My articles on Basquiat were written long before the “Fondation Vuitton scandal” came to light, which of course nobody is talking about, any more than they’re talking about the “Bourse-Commerce Pinault scandal”, which is however covered here).

Refs/ Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (1961, fifth edition), Capricorn Books, USA /// Mark Rothko, Writings on Art, Yale University Press, 2005 /// Henry Head, Studies in Neurology, Oxford Medical Publications, 1920

Léon Mychkine 

writer, Doctor of Philosophy,  independent researcher, art-critic, member of AICA-France



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