art, Atheism, Catholicism, essay, Existentialism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Art, Religion

Rothko and Death: The Rothko Chapel Triptych

Beware of the self-conscious excess of false abstraction. Beware of artists who claim to “lose themselves” in meaning less artistic action. Twirling random colors on a canvas seem to signify a lapse in the continuum of meaning, but they are in actuality the true potential of meaning. Every twist of the artists wrist and every flick of the brush speak to a mood of ecstasy and power that drives an artist to create something dynamic and alive in the paint. Look at the “abstraction” of a Pollack and ask yourself if you can truly accept its meaninglessness. What we see in the mounds of paint is nothing more or less than a self-portrait of intent and imagination; a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to a new sense of the self and the expression of the self. This self-portrait was composed by and for the conscious mind. Looking into a mirror yields a vision of the physical matter that makes up our momentary substance: we show this to the world so that they may explore us and then move on if and when they wish to. If the see something that they wish to explore further then they can choose to dig beyond the physical into the mind.

A self-portrait of intent and imagination (a portrait of the mind itself) is a mirror in its own right. What is seen reflected back is the dynamic expression of an identity in motion. The mind can exist outside the medium of the body in this artifice, and can therefore have more freedom to interact with the world without the distraction of the familiar physical self. In this way multiple minds can interact through the medium of art and “abstraction”: the mind can be rid of all the physical niceties associated with getting to know someone else and get right “to the point” so to speak. The body can be a part of these functions, and they also have roles to play all their won, but both together may at some times be a distraction from the real purpose of finding intellectual arousal and excitement in art. We must understand however that one physical attribute is needed for the mind to function: that is of course the brain which is thankfully conveniently located within the body in such a way that the matter itself does not elicit to much notice separate it from its primary function.

Meaning is expressed through abstraction so that minds can find meaning in each other outside of the purely physical realm. That is not to say that the physical realm is less sacrosanct then the mind, but one must acknowledge that art is best understood through the utilization of those mental facilities that can on occasion divorce themselves from physical action: dreams, contemplation, and imagination. It is telling that Rothko began his artistic expression with Expressionism. Many of his earlier works evoke a period in the history of the human imagination that was better elucidated by the German’s and the Russians in the various European expressionist schools. Rothko tried to emulate the artists like Kandinsky or Kirchner with their use of color to evoke passion and in many cases pain and even decay; when you take a vision of the world as it is, in vital movement, and put it in a frozen static form you must in some regards acquiesce that some essential decay will and must be involved. I say he tried to emulate because he gave in to the impulse to try and force vitality and movement into a scene that begged for the contradiction of stagnation in its composition.

These are the famous Subway platform paintings and there is indeed a certain charm to them, but also a sort of parochialism inherent to the conception. What we see is not clear enough to be a true moment of expression, but it is not expressive enough to transcend the mundane subject matter and burrow under the surface to something more emotional. It is a scene taken, one may feel, out of context and out of a sense of desperation to express something, anything, but fails to do more than depict a certain boring certainty that what we see before us is just a sample of the mundane. Rothko is no expressionist, though he desperately wants to be with these earlier works. But this was not the style in which Rothko could best communicate meaning and in his own words “morality” to other minds. Maybe the aesthetic he was so desperate to use was not enough for him, maybe he had not fail expressionism; perhaps it had failed him? So he moved further into abstraction, and with abstraction their often comes a certain self-criticism. Because if there is no icon to focus upon within the work, the artist must first focus upon the only concrete “reality” available in a realm where no form has truly taken shape: his own mind, and the intentions of that being/force. Instead of discovering his own form of Expressionism or some new morality to pontificate on with paint, he discovered himself as an expression of silence in human form and found that there was nothing more he needed to discover.

This truth was driven home to Rothko by the events of the Second World War, and by the Holocaust in particular. Rothko said that “after the Holocaust and the Atom Bomb you couldn’t paint figures without mutilating them.” By mentioning the two greatest potential and realized expressions of the human drives of annihilation and cruelty Rothko makes it clear that humanity is no longer the paragon of the expressive process. How could they be anymore? How could the permanence of artistic expression be anything but a lie in a moral universe that allowed for the obliteration of millions upon millions of human beings? We must also remember that Rothko lived at a time when supposedly ideologically opposed societies threatened to burn the entire world upon an atomic pyre. The potential of total human disintegration and irrelevancy was real and quite likely in the minds of millions, especially those in the West. It is not surprising then to hear these sentiments from Rothko. With his art after the Holocaust he jumped full force into the depiction and contemplation of silence and of oblivion and nothingness. Or at least he tried to express these concepts through art. His success or failure in this endeavor is entirely up to the person who analyzes and appreciates his art. I happen to think that he did succeed…To a degree.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, USA is perhaps the artistic culmination of Rothko’s artistic negation. Today it is a center for promoting the arts and human rights causes, but it was originally conceived as a home for one of Rothko’s most profound statements of artistic rebellion against form and humanistic expression. The Black Triptychs permanently on display at the chapel is Rothko’s ultimate celebration of stillness and reflection. It is hard to think of a better medium for achieving deep contemplation through artistic negation: an large canvas painted in deep black split into three equally sized smaller vertically oriented panels. These are flanked on each side by enormous square canvases painted in an equally beguiling shade of black. Benches are arranged in a square in front of the display, facilitating reflection and meditation, and perhaps conversation. This is a work meant for public consumption if there ever was one. It is grand and self-important in a tongue in cheek sort of way: the way it is displayed makes it the focal point of the entire geometrically shaped room, but as a centerpiece it is conspicuously without any real center. There is no variance in the black, no added splash of color or texture that is so evident in Rothko’s other color block works. This is simplicity taken to an almost obscene level.

And yet it is self-evidently a triptych. The triptych is a centuries old form of art that was often used to show the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, or the scenes from the Fall of Man, or the potential final resting place of the human soul. The number three links it to the Trinitarian belief system of the Catholic Church and the artists who painted to celebrate it and the tenants of the religion. Rothko is not attempting a celebration of Catholic dogma with this composition, but I believe a linking of nothingness and humanism through the negation of the human with familiar and stereotypical Christian iconography and aesthetic. It is a way to coopt the spiritual ethos of a Catholic, and by extension Christian, philosophical tradition. Contemplative and inevitable nihilism is expressed through a medium usually reserved for ecstatic transcendence and messianic reverence. This is perhaps a subtle comment on the silence and selective application of nihilism of and by the Church leadership when it came to the Holocaust and the treatment of other non-Catholics by the Nazis in the years during and leading up to the Second World War. Offering salvation through faith is not enough of a response to the hate and carnage unleashed by the Third Reich Rothko seems to be saying with his black compositions.

That is if he is saying anything at all. We must ourselves beware of the self-conscious application of moral values upon a piece as enigmatic and essentially inscrutable as these. It is easy to look into the maw of nothingness, of death, and in desperation project what we must see in order to justify an existence that for most leads inevitably to pain. Perhaps this is what Rothko intended: not a statement of anything, but a surface onto which we project our own futile attempts to bring meaning to the void. Rothko seems to see death as the ultimate expression of artistic values because only death can be contemplated as both an end and as a means. Black is black, and no matter how hard we stare into its depths we will never see any other color that mitigates the shock of this reflection of nothingness.

art, Existentialism, Philosophy, poetry

Preconceptions (A Poem)

The wish of a mind that reverts to its infancy

Déjà vu of a tabula rasa

A dream of a dream of a dream

What a nightmare mere dreaming can be!

Can’t you imagine the caste of a thought?

A memory waiting in a breadline

While another takes its place at the front of the queue?

Do not distrust a thought just because it is filthy

Bedecked head to foot in mire

Who thinks without thinking

Of the reason why we always revert

To yesterday’s fears and preconceptions?

I think that a thought has the right to be free

animals, essay, Existentialism, Philosophy, Science

Reflecting Upon a Dead Squirrel

The carcass is on the left hand side of the road. It is well preserved and largely intact save for a chunk of flesh by the ride side of the groan directly in from of the leg. It seems that the impact of the hit as opposed to the crushing of the tire did this creature in. It is a brown squirrel.  It is a common species in suburban Northern Illinois. More often than not the squirrels seen around this area are grey and considerably skinnier, but the brown bushier ones have been extant in the area for a greater part of my memory. I am driving in my car on an errand, I am down by the University and I see students and professors walking about and interrupting traffic with their divine academic imprimatur. I was about 50 meters out from the stop sign on the corner leading to the main road through the university complex. The side of the street on the driver side of my care was populated by the engineering buildings. This was the location of the squirrel carcass.

The carcass, as mentioned before, was well preserved and fresh. Rot had not yet set in and there were no insects or scavengers partaking of the spoils of mortality. The mouth is slightly agape and there is no noticeable swelling of the tongue, again indicating fresh death. The fur is mostly light brown but there are also streaks of blonde and red hair near the underbelly and around the tail. The claws are relaxed and dangle at the wrist of the front limps, the small black claws that from the perspective of a cat or another squirrel must seem formidable. From the perspective of the young adult male human-being driving the automobile the claws just comes off as macabrely darling.

The tail is perfectly pristine. The hairs are long and rigid and there are so many so close together as to give the illusion of being enormous in relation to the body. The tail is light and is softly jerking about at the whims of the afternoon breeze brought on by the coming of a thunderstorm system. It is the abdomen and groan, as mentioned earlier, that show the most obvious signs of mortality. The impact caused a small patch of flesh to tear. The bloody raw flesh within is exposed and from within the bowels are excreted some of the bowels of the creature. The innards are pink and brownish and look quite inflamed and bloated. The entire specimen is quiet obviously a dead squirrel.

Presumably after I leave the body will decline into steadily more and more rotten state. Presumably the flies will come and eat what they can before the females lay their eggs in the flesh of the carcass. The crows, ravens and buzzards that comprise the avian scavengers of the area will certainly come around and take their share. Ants will no doubt stake a claim to part of the carcass, slowly dismantling the structure of the muscles and the sinew and the skin and trucking it back to the mound entrance to the hive where it would be consumed by the community. Bacteria, which have really been there the whole time but are now fully liberated to satiate their eternal appetites, do their job putrefying and liquefying the remains.

As the maggots hatch and go about their jobs as the cleaning crew of the outfit it seems fitting to take a moment to reflect about the ultimate destiny of the corpse of that once was a brown squirrel. In the mind of some the body of the squirrel and its essence of thought and action as a squirrel are one and the same in making up the totality of the “squirrel” as an existentially coherent object.  For Atomists like Democritus and Titus Lucretius Carus all beings, things, and matter could be reduced down to a most basic unit of substance: the atom. These atoms are what make up all things and what connect all things in a great unity of matter and existence


Sic rerum summa novatur

semper, et inter se mortales mutua vivunt.

augescunt aliae gentes, aliae


inque brevi spatio mutantur saecla animantum

et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradiunt.


[ Thus the sum of things is ever being renewed,

and mortals live dependent one upon another.

Some nations increase, others diminish,

and in a short space the generations of living creatures

Are changed and like runners pass on the torch of life. ]


For others there is no essence of a thing per se so much as there is a summation of the material parts that leads to a being that consumes energy and expends energy and occasionally provides energy to other beings, in short a functioning being whose form we have given the label of “squirrel”.

In a purely material and scientific sense (the sense that I find most enlightening and interesting) the history of this being known as “squirrel” is long and complex and I will only summarize it here. The earliest distinguishable genetic relatives of what we now know of as a “squirrel” appeared in North America 30-36 million years ago. The earliest squirrels, such as Douglassciurus jeffersoni closely resembled their modern counterparts in every way except for one: they lacked a zygomasseteric system. This was an arraignment of a system of muscles in the jaw and skull that characterizes many modern rodent species save for the New World Sciurus squirrel species’ of which this carcass is an example.1 Specifically the species Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, first described and named by German physicist and naturalist Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben in the year 1777.2 He most like spent his life eating nuts, seeds, lichens, and even bark. He looked to be of breeding age, but it could never be known if the creature had ever successfully, or even unsuccessfully, procreated.3

                        The squirrel has come to symbolize many different things in many different human cultures and traditions. To many indigenous American civilizations, especially in what would become the Eastern United States, the squirrel represented gossip and lies along with cleverness and brashness. The Pine Squirrel Clan, Onawanik, of the Menominee and similarly named tribes of the Chickasaw are examples of an entire culture associating itself with the creature whose remains I am now contemplating.4 A squirrel teamed up with a moose to save Cold War era United States from the Soviet menace. It could even fly. The squirrel I mean, not the moose. He appears in internet memes with enlarged testes and in stone on the lawns of millions of English and American family’s lawns and in paintings especially from the Northern European Renaissance. It is an ideal of swiftness and a clichéd representation of youth and vigor, a character used as an analogy of neurosis and anxiety. He is one of the few rodents that mankind does not have a natural aversion to. It goes real well roasted with a rich vegetable stew and a piece of corn bread.

But first and foremost it is a dead squirrel.