Painting of the Day

10 Apr


Black on Gray. by Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Oil on canvas, 1970.

Notes from

Highly informed by Nietzsche, Greek mythology, and his Russian-Jewish heritage, Rothko’s art was profoundly imbued with emotional content that he articulated through a range of styles that evolved from figurative to abstract.  

Rothko’s early figurative work – including landscapes, still lifes, figure studies, and portraits – demonstrated an ability to blend Expressionism and Surrealism. His search for new forms of expression led to his color field paintings, which employed shimmering color to convey a sense of spirituality.  
  Rothko maintained the social revolutionary ideas of his youth throughout his life. In particular he supported artist’s total freedom of expression, which he felt was compromised by the market. This belief often put him at odds with the art world establishment, leading him to publicly respond to critics, and occasionally refuse commissions, sales and exhibitions.
My comments:
I don’t really like Rothko’s work in general because its expressive effect seems to be very dependent on the external conditions surrounding the work. For example, in the Philips Collection they have a Rothko room that is very small with walls that are only slightly taller than the paintings, and on all four walls in this room there is a Rothko painting. So you are overwhelmed by them and it does make for a quite moving experience. But I kind of feel that art should only seem expressive in certain situations; if an artwork is truly good, I feel like it shouldn’t matter how it’s hanging. You could argue that the space in which an artwork hangs is actually part of the artwork as well and to change that space from what it should be would be equivalent to changing one color in the painting from the original. This still doesn’t convince me, however, because Rothko didn’t build the rooms in which he intended for his art to hang, which were small apartments. If you would argue that the space is part of the art, then the artist is responsible for making that space also.
With that said, I actually love this particular Rothko painting because, although Rothko insisted that his color field paintings weren’t landscapes, this one reads like a landscape to me in which we as viewers are standing on the surface of the moon and gazing out into the black abyss of space. When I think about the painting this way instead of as just two colors juxtaposed, it becomes exponentially, dramatically, more moving to me.
But this brings me to another conversation we had in my art class yesterday. Our professor told us about how he made this painting of an adolescent boy jumping off a swing and his colleague Michael Cothren (my art history professor) saw the painting and said that the boy looked like a Christ figure. Another colleague of my studio art professor said that he saw some homosexual tensions in the painting. Now my studio art professor wasn’t thinking of these meanings at all, but does that mean that the interpretations of these two colleagues are incorrect? I asked my studio art professor this question, and he said that they aren’t incorrect and are in face important contributions to the study of art. This doesn’t gel exactly with what Cothren told me last semester when I wrote a paper on Rogier van der Weyden’s painting of the Crucifixion and I attributed meanings to it that the artist probably wasn’t intending. Cothren told me that it was incorrect because it didn’t gel with historical context; I was attributing a Protestant interpretation to the painting several decades before the Protestant Reformation began. I felt pretty embarrassed by the effort because I had really wanted to do well on the paper, so maybe I’m trying to justify myself now. But it’s interesting how an art professor versus an art history professor answered that same question of the validity of discerning meanings independent of the artist differently. Maybe this is really a question of the role of the art historian versus the art critic and that’s where the discrepancy in their answers lies.
That’s also interesting because it reminds us that art historians aren’t supposed to be deciding what artwork is good, but what was significant in the development of art in human history. Often good art is also art historically significant, but not always. So I guess the answer is that when you are writing art history, you stick to facts because you are writing history. If you want to assign personal meanings to artwork, then you are playing the role of an art critic, which is a very significant role in modern art history but is not historical fact itself.

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara April 10, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    as they say in the weekly standard, all art historians are critical and cranky ( i am paraphrasing).

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