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The Colors of Unknowing

Untitled (1953); No. 14 (White and Greens in Blue, 1957); Untitled(1949) by Mark Rothko. Located in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. [Photo by Eric Wilcox]

A few years ago, a unusual film about life in a Carthusian monastery appeared in theaters. At three hours long, Into Great Silence had no plot, virtually no dialog or action, and sometimes not even any image on screen except inky darkness. For those attuned to that sort of thing, it was mesmerizing. For others, it was a beyond-tedious example of the emperor’s new clothes, a cynical attempt to flatter an audience with thoughts of how terribly sophisticated they must be for having sat through a lot of nothing. Skeptics would add that the monks themselves were fools, with their ridiculous belief in a God they cannot even see.

Similarly polarized responses dog the paintings of Mark Rothko (1903-1970). His signature works—large canvases filled with fuzzy rectangular blobs of color—seem like the visual equivalent of silence. Some viewers find them deeply moving, despite their lack of imagery or recognizable subject matter; others see another naked emperor.

The skepticism might be softened just a little in Rothko’s case by understanding what he was trying to do.

If we think of silence as the space between sounds, we can say that in speech and music it is what defines boundaries and creates rhythm. We normally pay it little attention, being more interested in words and melodies. But sometimes silence speaks louder than words, and there are times when we are desperate for it.

The Space Between

 In visual art, silence’s equivalent is the improbable-sounding negative space. Negative space is what surrounds the “positive figures”—the marks, shapes, and figures that are the usual focal points in works of art.

Negative space may be the leftover white space in a line drawing, or a wall or the sky “behind” the figures in a realistic painting (though it is not defined by that implied spatial relationship).

Like silence, it is easily ignored. In beginning drawing classes, a typical exercise has students draw not the outlines of the study objects set up for them but the space around and between them; it takes a conscious effort to switch from looking at the things to looking where they are not, but the process dramatically improves students’ sense of proportions and spacing.

Perhaps most importantly, negative space provides a neutral place for the eye to rest, to look at “nothing” for a while, if only for a moment.

As such, it is an essential component of almost every artistic composition—I say almost because it is possible to make negative space disappear by carpeting the picture plane with wall-to-wall figures, a compositional approach known as horror vacui, or “fear of the void,” seen commonly in decorative art and some forms of abstraction.

Examples of the opposite practice are far fewer. It seems like an odd or even impossible artistic goal: to dispose of every positive figure and leave nothing but negative space, to make a picture of nothing. It would be like putting on an exhibit of raw canvases—or Rothko’s paintings.

Abstract Approaching

While not a uniquely modernist idea, imagelessness (or “aniconism”) has undoubtedly been explored more in our time than in any previous period of art. Whether that interest is explained by contemporary nihilism, run-amok relativism (what could be more indeterminate than an “untitled” blank slate onto which observers are free to impose whatever significance they like), or something else depends on the motivations and presuppositions of everyone involved.

As is often the case with the ideas of modernism, it seems the Romantics started things off. Those familiar with the paintings of, say, Caspar David Friedrich (see “The Solitary Wanderer Goes Astray,” This Rock, Nov. 2007) or J.M.W. Turner may have an inkling of how short the step from ordinary figure-dominated art to an art of negative space could be. In Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, for example, the miniscule figure of a monk is surrounded by a vast expanse of empty sky, ocean, and beach. Take that solitary observer out of the picture and all that remains is the silent, infinite “backdrop.”

More than one art historian has suggested that that is effectively what Rothko did. In his mature paintings, with their clouds of color and vague hints of depth, Rothko emptied and transfigured the sublime landscape. It becomes an abstracted, inchoate space, viewed now from the outside by troops of museum-going “monks.”

Rothko didn’t come to this all at once, of course. Whatever one thinks of his signature works, they were the result of decades of earnest creative exploration. Throughout the ’20s, ’30s, and most of the ’40s, Rothko worked in abstract but basically figurative styles, borrowing elements from Cubism, Surrealism, and expressive abstraction; he even dabbled in essentially traditional portraiture and nudes, still-lifes and landscapes. His colors were somber and muted for the most part, but they already appeared occasionally in horizontal bands as negative-space backdrops for his figures.

During this formative period, some pieces received evocative titles like Antigone, Archaic Idol, The Omen of the Eagle, and Gethsemane, alluding to the tragic conflicts consuming Europe.

Without a Signpost

Rothko, born a Latvian Jew (he changed his name from Marcus Rothkowitz in 1940, having emigrated with his family to Portland, Oregon in 1913), believed that the troubles plaguing the world stemmed from its rejection of traditional mythologies and their replacement by destructive ideologies like fascism or communism. The same loss of faith had deprived art of its ability to engage with the transcendent dimensions and psychological depths of human life. “Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our dramas,” he wrote in a 1947 essay (“The Romantics Were Prompted . . . ,” Possibilities 1, Winter 1947).  

To relieve art from its disbelieving “melancholy,” he turned to classical mythology, Freudian and Jungian psychology, the Bible, and the writings of Nietzsche and Joyce among others, for material that would—by drawing on shared references and unconscious archetypes—transcend the here and now. As he explained it in a 1943 radio interview, “we have used [the known myths of antiquity] again because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas.”

By the end of the 1940s, Rothko had abandoned the figure and all references to the visible world and familiar cultural tropes. Nothing outside of the painted surface was allowed to bias the viewer’s experience: “The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment” (Possibilities 1). The horizontal bands of color took over completely, leaving his work wholly non-objective, and titles—when he bestowed them—were hereafter never more than a bare list of the main colors in the piece, or a simple numerical tag. He even avoided explaining his work to enquirers, saying that silence is “so accurate.”

If the “basic psychological ideas” that Rothko wished to access—“tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on”—were not to be reached through concrete imagery or associations, what was left for the artist to work with? For Rothko, the answer was clear: color. He and other expressionist painters (like Wassily Kandinsky; see “Music to Stir the Slumbering Spirit,” This Rock, Nov. 2008) looked to color—imageless, non-objective, diffuse—to reflect and evoke universal emotional states. It provided Rothko with a direct route to the unconscious core of the soul where myth is born, bypassing the deficiencies of the literal, rational mind.

We can see then that Rothko’s signature paintings are the fruit of a process of distillation, or purgation: “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity, toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer” (Tiger’s Eye, vol. 1 no. 9, October 1949). Some will say he took the process too far, and that we need those “obstacles” to guide us to the idea; removing them abandons us in a colorful, but featureless, fog.

Via Negativa

These thoughts invite consideration of one of the great mysteries of spiritual life: How can God be known?

There are two great and opposed solutions, the via positiva and the via negativa. The former embraces all of Creation as Creation in order to know God. The latter eschews all created things to focus on God himself in his mystery. Art seems naturally allied with the former. To look for God in things, in positive assertions, in analogies and images, seems to be a universal human trait. It is why we have churches and statues and books and icons and incense and music and the whole material apparatus of religion. But the via negativa would have us abandon all such expedients, art included, since they fall infinitely short of capturing God’s essence. As such, they are obstacles, not helps.

Needless to say, not even Rothko’s ascetic art is exempt from this proscription, but while it is incapable of unveiling the unknowable God, its imagelessness does perhaps capture the essence of the negative way itself. That Rothko understood this is evident from his last great project, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, for which he provided 14 large and almost completely black paintings. Visitors to the chapel (originally conceived to be a specifically Catholic space, though it is now non-denominational), will find little in the paintings to feed their eyes or direct their thoughts. Many, by their own account, come away with nothing; some are moved to tears. The via negativa, like the “great silence,” is certainly not for everyone.

The Peril of Emptiness

Rothko once remarked that “art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks,” and that “a painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.” The via negativa teaches that God will be found  in the experience of mystical union, not in things or images. Adventurous searchers after God might look to Rothko’s paintings as a new kind of religious art, something to focus on while contemplatively “staring off into space,” and certainly more effective as a way to concentrate their attention than a blank wall: Every painting, even if it is a painting of “nothing,” is an attractively positive presence on the negative space of the wall.

Critics will remind us that the risks of such an open-ended artistic and spiritual “adventure” are not negligible—who knows what you might be opening yourself up to? A painting of negative space, like silence outside of the Mass or prayer, has no context to make it sacred. The risk for the artist is that it will collapse into pretentious banality and empty decoration, something Rothko himself feared, and no doubt many think actually happened.

Rothko’s paintings are not a replacement for traditional religious art or other forms of imagery. But at their best they can be, at least for some, “a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.” To those with appreciative eyes, his clouds of color are the clouds of unknowing.



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