I’m laptopping this letter from beside a reflecting pool in Houston, Texas. The floodlights are coming up on Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk. Beyond, in the Philip Johnson-designed Chapel, there are 14 of Mark Rothko’s final works.
New York abstractionist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) took his own life a year before the paintings in this Chapel were hung and dedicated. Rothko had worked on the project over several years and spent considerable time fine-tuning and giving specific instructions as to positioning and lighting. He was a fussy and particular guy. During the Great Depression Rothko lived precariously on occasional grants. For a while he did piecework in his wife’s jewelry shop. Alternating between bouts of depression and optimism, he combined lofty idealism with ever-present feelings of his own worthlessness. His art was a progression from attempted realism, crafted abstraction through giant soft-edge colour-field to overt minimalism. Success came late for Rothko. These last paintings are wall-to-wall purplish-browns and black with little or no linear relief. Reaction ranges from hopeless nothings to the Holy Grail and Final Statement of Modern Art. It’s certainly possible to wander deeply into these mysterious, imageless paintings and feel what you will. Apart from nothing, some see the face of God, others the Mystery of the Universe. Canvases not cluttered with subject matter leave little to distract. It’s a do it yourself art experience. Like the Shroud of Turin there’s just enough to fascinate. Originally planned with a Roman Catholic focus (Rothko nixed the inclusion of the Stations of the Cross) the Rothko Chapel is now an ecumenical sanctuary.
At the unveiling on February 26, 1971,Dominique de Menil, Rothko’s benefactor, said, “I am supposed to talk about the paintings but I don’t think I can explain them.” She added that there was nothing wrong with talking, “except that it has never stopped.” Rothko’s death message was a gift of silence. He had always felt it risky to send paintings out into the world. “How often must they be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent,” he said.
It’s 7 p.m. and the doors of the Chapel are now closed to both the Believers and the Philistines. I’m almost, but not quite, speechless.
PS: “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.” (Mark Rothko)
Esoterica: People come here to meditate and to pray. Celebrations of Puja, Rosh Hashanah, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Eid-el-Fitr, Cinco de Mayo Mass, weddings and memorials take place beneath Rothko’s enigmatic stare. Buddhists now dance with new-age Zoroastrians. Lectures, music, dance and poetry are regular happenings here, as are Human Rights Day and the Annual Awards for Truth and Freedoms. This place is an ongoing rally for peace, freedom, and social justice. A freethinking and lapsed Jew, Rothko might not now be so depressed.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
by Kay Cox, Seabrook, TX, USA
The Rothko Chapel is one of Houston’s finest assets — a gift to those of all faiths and it is always a powerful experience for me to sit in silence in the presence of Spirit and Rothko’s incredible canvases. Thank you for bringing this to our attention and I am grateful that you have had the opportunity to share in this experience. The Menils had great vision in building the chapel and the museum nearby.
Nothing is still nothing
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, Spanish Springs, NV, USA
I must be a Philistine or ignorant because when I look at Rothko’s work I ask myself, “Where’s the beef?” Hopefully my legacy will be at least “one quarter pound before cooking.” His work reminds me of what I saw at the Reina Sophia in Madrid: blue canvases, stabbed canvases, pencil poked canvases and as my son back then said, “dookie on a stick.” And to think we actually paid to go in. Nothing is still nothing.
by Susan Canavarro, Florence, OR, USA
Thank you so much for recognizing Mark Rothko’s life and work. He is, above all else, my favorite 20th century painter. Much of what I strive to achieve in my meager painting efforts has been inspired by Rothko’s beautiful translucent use of color, his simplicity of design and shapes and its inherent spirituality. His paintings make my mouth water. The progression one sees in his work from translucent color to greys and browns and to even more simplicity in his shapes and design is a visual Rorschach of his inner self leading up to his ultimate and tragic suicide. A visual image packs a powerful message if we take the time to look, feel and understand.
No future for Rothko
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
“Seeing the face of God” and the “mystery of the universe,” please! These are merely the smearings of pigment on canvas from a man who was three doughnuts short of a baker’s dozen. But because nobody could ever figure out what he was doing and he was given so many grants to pursue his message-less works, his work was eventually deemed acceptable. Of course, he was fussy and particular about his precious lighting — how else could he command attention to his insignificant and boring works. His works are described as “Do it yourself.” Do what yourself? There were maybe a handful of people who liked or even cared for this man’s work. But now we are supposed to sit up and take notice of this insipid man’s paintings. It is not something I will notice in my lifetime. Centuries from now they won’t be studying them in art school.
Living with the Menil Legacy
by Jean King, Houston, TX, USA
I live in the museum district of Houston. I live just around the corner and down the street from the Rothko Chapel. I rent my studio (about two blocks away from the Chapel) from the Menil Foundation. I use the inner sanctuary of the Rothko Chapel and the quiet stillness of the reflection pool as places to sit and meditate. I alternate use of the Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Chapel in inclement weather. I much prefer to sit outside and watch the surface of the reflection pool. I try to walk several times daily around the two blocks that are occupied by the Menil Collection, Rothko Chapel, the Cy Twombly Gallery and the Menil Bookstore.
Poor quality paint in Rothko works
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
Unfortunately, Mark Rothko had not used quality artists’ paints, and as a result the colours of his paintings have changed, maybe due to the chemical instability of the pigments. Photographs of the works taken when they were fresh and years later showed the pronounced colour shift. On one hand this underscores the need to use good grade materials, while on the other it shows that nothing can really last in this world. I think of the beautiful Tibetan Buddhist mandalas produced by the monks with coloured sand that after completing them, they scatter the works to the winds. I’m glad you wrote about Rothko and the chapel. I like art that triggers a religious feeling that transcends organized belief.
by Alyson Stanfield, Golden, CO, USA
You helped me relive my three trips to the Rothko Chapel. For me, it’s one of the most spiritual places on earth and I (who am very active) could honestly spend all day there meditating in the peacefulness of the paintings and simple architecture. An unabashed Rothko fan, I am particularly drawn to this space where the large paintings hang without the intrusion of other art or noisy crowds.
I have the new book of Rothko’s philosophies, The Artist’s Reality, edited by Rothko’s son. You have inspired me to pick it up and drink it in.
(RG note) I have that book too, Alyson. It’s an early (c1939) attempt by Rothko to make sense of what he was feeling and seeing. Unfinished, scattered and not fully resolved, it’s nevertheless an insight into this painter’s considerable brain. Rothko’s son Christopher found the well-thumbed but disregarded manuscript among the painter’s belongings. Another valuable book is The Rothko Chapel — an Act of Faith by Susan J Barnes. This is a well-footnoted, well-illustrated and definitive book on the genesis of the Chapel and the Rothko connection. Another book that gives an insight into Rothko’s dealer relations and the skullduggery that took place in his estate is The Legacy of Mark Rothko by Lee Seldes. This is a “must read” for those artists who have an attitude about dealers or who might want to know how pyramiding price-success is created by posthumous control of a commodity.
Modern art talk
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA
Although I personally enjoy Rothko, if for no other reason than the sheer size of his canvases and the pressure of his caprice of color and brush stroke on the human body, I can’t help but feel that this letter, once again, holds the public hostage to the snobbery and insecurity of Modern Art. The public is threatened with being labeled as having “ the unfeeling eyes and the cruelty of the impotent” if they look at a Rothko or Pollock or Hockney and say, “Huh? I don’t get it.” Art has, and always will, fall flat on its face if it has to be explicated to be experienced. Knowing more about the intent and the theory behind the painting should deepen one’s enjoyment of a work of art after the experience of it has taken you for a ride, not cause the reaction of, “Oh, Okay, now I get it. But I wouldn’t want to live with it.” I recently sat on a panel that received the final pieces for a juried exhibition, and I noticed that most of the work was large, very large. As in Rothko large. The work was also simplistic in its subject matter. Content was minimalized; size maximized to the point of intimidation. Those are the cheap tricks of corporate America. When the public is bored with the size and shape of Oreos and Cheez-it, a “genius” comes along and changes the size and packaging, and the ever-restless, stimulation-crazed public bites the bait.
Can’t we raise the bar a bit on Modern Art? Can we stop with the snobbery that mocks honest reaction and belittles personal pleasure? At the risk of turning unfeeling eyes toward my impotence, I’ll state that I resent being held hostage by the desperate debasement of the withering garde arrière, and say, “Come on. Enough with the threats and the lectures from on high. Gimme some beauty and truth, kick me in the gut and make me cry with some paint on canvas. I’m getting tired of all this corporate trickery and Viagra that childishly stomps its foot and insists on being called art.”
P.S. Rothko was Bipolar I, and no amount of exhibition of his work would have eased his depression or stopped his suicide. This romanticism of mental illness and art is a dangerous thing. The origins of art are prayer to the gods, and its evolution has been toward pleasure. Isn’t it time for art to take on a bit of responsibility? There are a lot of tortured and disturbed youth out there who sneak under the radar when we glorify the agony and the ecstasy of artists. They and their families don’t have to face the pain of mental illness and dealing with it because they can say, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with Johnny. He just has an artistic temperament.” Is the possible production of a piece of art worth the cost of a human life? I do believe the world would have survived and evolved if Van Gogh had been a healthy man and never painted anything more than his kitchen.
Nix on blog idea
by Cathie Harrison
My heart skipped a beat when I read the note in response to Julian Merrow-Smith’s suggestion that you make the twice weekly letter a blog. Please don’t change it significantly. It is so clearly meeting a deeply felt need in so many artists to feel connected to each other and to read about and glimpse moments that we all experience on this journey of life as an artist. I’ve been talking up the twice-weekly letter to all my artist friends and they want to know “the catch”. I tell them there is none, just connection, sympatico, “aha” moments, inspiration, sadness and glee as you share the stories of your life as an artist and others respond with their challenges and achievements. I always smile and giggle a little when I read the letters about you being in the mind of others. You could probably do a whole page of responses of people who believe you tapped into their minds when you chose the topic. Maybe you did. I know there is one sure thing in life and that is change, for good and for bad, but I beg you on bended knee, don’t change a good thing that means so much to so many. Your letter makes me feel that there are people like me out there who soak up the visual world and are inspired by its beauty. That is no small thing!
(RG note) Thanks, Cathie. Your sentiment reflected the thoughts of several other writers. You might notice that we included a sort of blog (Sketch from Life — Waiting for the Puntarenas Ferry) as a supplement to the previous clickback. My excuse is that it includes a work in progress and the kind of mental process that a person goes through when choosing subject matter. For some reason the response to this little effort is overwhelming. So we’ll do something like it again. The clickbacks will remain as always — selective, representative, and edited. The last thing we want to do is to waste the precious time of artists.
Sketch from life
by Lyn Cherry, Maryville, TN, USA
Thank you for the lively sketch (both painted and written) in Waiting for the Puntarenas Ferry. I could almost hear the sounds, and smell the ordure, and see the colors. I think that by picking the nuns in their white habits, you were giving us a place to rest our senses, brought to exciting overload by the myriad sights, sounds, and smells.
(RG note) Thanks so much to all who responded to this. And thanks also to everyone in Houston and thereabouts who wrote and asked me to come by for tea, etc. By the time I received the emails I was out of your wonderful city. Another time, I hope.
The King is Dead, Long live the King!
by Sally Pollard, Weiser, ID, USA
Seems to me a lot of artists are celebrating the death of abstract expressionism and the dictates of taste from the US east coast. Are you talking out both sides of your mouth when you eulogize Rothko?
Last week I went to Boise and saw a small show of word art in encaustic by Bingo Barnes and almost cried, in joy and in sorrow. I bought one and had a hard time sleeping and my daily painting ritual died. Something deep in me was moved that I didn’t quite understand. These encaustics spoke a language I haven’t heard in a while. They were so under-priced I went back and bought 4 more. I love the surface, the colors, the crudeness, the randomness. I showed them to my art friends and they haven’t a clue as to the beauty of these small pieces. It is as if it is in a language they don’t speak.
Did the appeal of high art loose the easel painter while pushing the envelope with randomness? Is the painter today longing for more predictable orderliness and the security of recognizable subject matter and studied techniques?
Since moving to this artistic backwater I have been trying to learn to paint “real” subject matter again after years of experimenting with “art ideas,” with textures and assemblages, color and paint for its own sake. Now I am painting an occasional barn and barnyard friends. I find people here in the sticks do not speak art. They understand pictures of horses and snow covered peaks, but haven’t the slightest clue what distinguishes a picture from a painting, honestly. They have no use for Rothko. They have more thrill with paint chips from the hardware store. These tiny encaustic pieces by Bingo Barnes reminded me of the death of modern art expressions.
I wondered if I was still decompressing from my art school lessons, although it has been years for me. (I’ve been told you have to unlearn as much as you pick and choose what to follow.) Now from between the lines of The Painter’s Keys I am wondering if there is a message about there being a whole art world decompressing from the tyranny of art historians and art trends. Or have I, at my old ripe age, finally stopped worrying about being a genius and can now simply work at my art and not take myself too seriously? (Free at last from the tyranny of high art?) I am sorry Rothko committed suicide. I have read he rented a room at the Salvation Army and was gravely disappointed when the expected throngs of young artists never showed up groveling for his wisdom and blessings. I am glad to have stood in front of a few of his paintings and become lost in their expansiveness. There were many other high artists that I didn’t appreciate until they were explained to me. High art indeed. What is the lesson?
I rationalize there is nothing bad about a good barn painting or landscape or other traditional subject matter. I am just trying to paint well. They’re having a statewide competition here called “Barn Again.” Now I’m getting a bit uneasy with barn art. Is high art dead? Is the tyranny over? Will we all be Barn Again?
Lasting contribution of a WW2 artist
by Wayne Ralph
Among the many airmen that I interviewed for my most recent book was Robert Hyndman. He was a Spitfire pilot and a Canadian war artist during the Second World War. Trained on the Spitfire in 1943 he joined 411 Squadron, 126 Wing RCAF, at Biggin Hill, England. Hyndman witnessed many horrific events during his tour. He can never forget the shock of his squadron commander’s Spitfire blowing up in front of him on a sortie, falling to the French soil below in a thousand burning pieces. The loss of so many young men in combat made Robert hate the war intensely. At the same time he commented to me that “I would have hated myself if I had wangled my way out of the war.” After 155 combat ops, he was “tour-expired” and his nerves told him he needed a break. Recognizing Hyndman’s artistic talent, the RCAF appointed him an Official War Artist and provided him with a studio at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. By war’s end, Robert Hyndman had painted most of the Canadian senior commanders and many of the fighter aces of the RCAF.
Robert has made his living as an artist since 1945, doing commission work, and though he will turn 90 in June, still teaches at the Ottawa School of Art. He likes to teach, but is quick to point out that there are no pensions for self-employed artists, and he needs the money. He is proud of having been self-employed as an artist all his life.
None of his war art produced as a war artist belongs to him. When a small portion of the Beaverbrook War Art Collection toured Canada some years ago, his painting of a Spitfire in flight over France became the main advertising image for the tour. It was plastered on T-shirts and coffee mugs. He didn’t get a royalty. He’s not allowed to reproduce his work without the permission of the government of Canada. He, like all published artists and authors, must pay a reproduction fee to the Canadian War Museum in order to use any image from the collection.
(RG note) Thanks, Wayne. Wayne Ralph’s book is Aces, Warriors & Wingmen : Firsthand Accounts of Canada’s Fighter Pilots in the Second World War.
gouache and ink painting
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