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Mark Rothko and His Painting “White Center” Essays

MUSEUM PAPER MARK ROTHKO AND HIS PAINTING “WHITE CENTER” Mark Rothko’s painting “White Center” is a breathtaking abstract painting I saw at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA). Rothko painted this 84 x 72-inch oil on canvas work in 1957. The painting is done in his signature style of using color and form-floating rectangular shapes. Rothko was part of the American movement that became known as Abstract Expressionism, which was more than just a painting style.
It refers to the process the artists worked in conveying powerful emotions through the quality and size of the paintings. They were also greatly influenced by European Surrealism and Expressionist painters. This movement was about expressing one’s feelings through the act of painting. Jackson Pollack might be the most well known example of this with his drip paintings. This group of artists first gained notice during the Great Depression. The term Abstract Expressionism was first used by art critic Robert Coates from the New Yorker in the context of modern painting in 1945. 1] The movement gained momentum during and following WWII when many artists came to the United States from Europe and went on to form the New York School, a group of like-minded avant-garde artists. The name New York School became synonymous with Abstract Expressionist painting. This was the first time American artist’s gained significant recognition in the art world. The recognition came after the “Fifteen Americans” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1952.
The MoMA show included Rothko (who had eight paintings in a separate gallery), the other artists included in the exhibition were William Baziotes, Edward Corbett, Edwin Dickinson, Herbert Ferber, Joseph Glasco, Herbert Katzman, Frederick Kiesler, Irving Kriesberg, Richard Lippold, Jackson Pollock, Herman Rose, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin and Thomas Wilfred. Abstract Expressionism was a very modern movement with artists being influenced by the two world wars and city life.
It was a period when it seemed as if everything was in motion, which created feelings of discomfort, restlessness and anxiety. The artists during this time absorbed the new avant-garde ideas and feelings coming out of the clubs and bars of New York’s SoHo and used that in their art. The painter William Seitz described artists of the movement as valuing “expression over perfection, vitality over finish, fluctuation over repose, the unknown over the known, the veiled over the clear, the individual over society, and inner over the outer. ”[2]
Two major styles of new modern painting that came out in this time were ‘action painting’ and ‘color field painting’. Rothko’s early work of the New York subways, city scenes and landscapes were very influential in the development of his later work–– the color field paintings,[3] which focused mainly on using color fields to create art based on ‘myth’, which was influenced by poetry and philosophy. Rothko described his generation as embracing the myths of antiquity “because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological idea.
They are the symbols of man’s primitive fears and motivations no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail but never in substance. ”[4] The idea of myth became central to his work. He wanted to communicate human drama and displace the recognizable and everyday. Rothko said, “The fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. ”[5]
In the early 1940s, influenced by European Surrealism and the theories of Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy” and Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, Rothko began to abandon Expressionism in his work. He experimented with paint, using oils like watercolors –thinning the paints and layering them in overlapping glazes. [6] The late 1940s and early 1950s were critical in the development of this work. He wanted to do away with any representational work and began to focus solely on developing a new and original style of abstraction.
By 1949, after experimenting with compositions based on primitive, archaic art and biomorphic figures, “his work coalesced into floating color shapes with loose undefined edges within large expanses of color. ”[7] Over the next 20 years, Rothko explored this basic compositional style with infinite and subtle variations. [8] He said his ultimate goal was to provoke emotion and create a transcendental experience for the viewer. [9] The way Rothko used paint to express light, form and emotion affects me deeply. Each time I look at one of his painting I experience something new – a deeper emotion.
The painting “White Center” brings out both a conflicting sense of melancholy, along with deep feelings of comfort for me. It glows with deep luminous reds from its soft-edged rectangles and white center. Rothko said of his paintings, “They are not abstractions at all. ”[10] He said he “was capturing the basic human emotion of tragedy, ecstasy, and doom”[11]; expressing the deeper meaning of individual’s experiences. I appreciate the formal qualities and composition in his work. He uses dissolving color and soft lines in a floating space creating a unique place to have an intimate emotional experience.
Rothko’s use of strong visual elements – line, shape, light, color, texture, space and time/motion make his paintings more than just abstract color forms. The simple but powerful shapes radiate, expanding and contracting, as you look at them. As I sat for a while and enjoyed the painting, my emotions changed from feelings of happiness toward sadness for no particular reason. I was having the experience he intended. Reds had a strong emotional meaning to him representing life and ecstasy. He started to add more and more black to his images toward the end of his life reflecting his declining mood and emotional state.
Unfortunately Rothko committed suicide in 1970. It was very important to Rothko to have a unique experience when viewing his paintings. He insisted on controlling the way his works were exhibited, believing that an insensitive installation could affect his intentions and make the paintings appear merely decorative. [12] He demonstrated this need for control in 1952 with the “15 Americans” group show at MoMA. He insisted his paintings be placed in bright light and hung together so the edges touched one another.
He was unyielding about the space and light his work was seen; as his worked changed he wanted a dimmer environment. His paintings became darker reflecting more of twilight ‘tragedy’ than red ‘ecstasy’. He was commissioned in 1958 to create work for the Seagram Building in New York for the Four Seasons Restaurant. He did not like the location the commissioned art was going to be placed so he withdrew all of it and returned his commission. The painting “White Center” is placed in a corner at LACMA with a comfortable bench placed in front of it.
The piece beckons us to sit down and look at the painting – feel it, experience it. The balance of unity and variety are apparent in this work. It has its own unique rhythm. It is both sensuous and spiritual containing universality not only because of his use of the principles of design but also because of a basic connectedness to our emotions. I don’t know if he would be happy with the placement of the painting at LACMA. I would imagine he would want the painting in a more brightly lit place and in its own room so we may have a more intimate experience.
Our experience was forefront and crucial in Rothko’s mind, his achievement was in creating paintings with a unique emotional experience. ———————– [1] Oxford Directory of Art. March 7, 2010 [2] Baal-Teshuva, Jacob. Rothko pg 10 [3] Baal-Teshuva, Jacob. Rothko pg 17 [4] Tate Gallery 1987 [5] Rothko, Mark [6] Oxford Art Online [7] Arnason, History of Modern Art [8] Arnason, History of Modern Art [9] Arnason, History of Modern Art [10] LACMA- Online Collection Gallery [11] Rothko, Mark [12] Oxford Art Online

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