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.


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