Mark Rothko on the Transcendent Power of Art and How (Not) To Experience His Paintings

“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

Between January and July of 1956, a pivotal point in art when abstraction and realism confronted one another in a particularly fierce conflict and fine art was exorcising its ambivalence about the “organic” and the “formal” on canvases the world over, the celebrated writer, poet, critic, and public intellectual Selden Rodman (February 19, 1909–November 2, 2002) engaged in a series of conversations with some of the era’s greatest artists. Among them was the influential painter Mark Rothko. Found in Conversations with Artists (public library) — the same magnificent anthology that gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality and Frank Lloyd Wright’s feisty critique of other architects — the exchange with Rothko is equal parts amusing and profound.

Mark Rothko

Unlike most of the other interviews, it didn’t take place in the artist’s studio — rather, the two ran into each other at the Whitney Museum Annual. Rodman recounts Rothko, who was generally “touchy about his work,” was in a particularly cranky mood, mad at his dealer for having given Rodman permission to reproduce one of his paintings in the book The Eye of Man. Rodman recounts the exchange:

“Janis had no right to give permission,” he said, adding that he’d contemplated suing both me and the publisher.

“You should have, Mark,” I said, laughing, “you should have. That would have given abstract expressionism far more publicity than I ever could!”

“You might as well get one thing straight,” he said, relaxing, “I’m not an abstractionist.”

“You’re an abstractionist to me,” I said. “You’re a master of color harmonies and relationships on a monumental scale. Do you deny that?”

“I do. I’m not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else.”

Mark Rothko, No.5/No.22, oil on canvas (1949-1950)

Rothko then extracts from the particularity of his personal, momentary gripe a more general and timeless observation about the power of art, touching on Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” and contemplating the psychological functions of art. (Even so, he still manages to scold Rodman in a charmingly curmudgeonly manner.)

I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

Conversations with Artists, should you be fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy, is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Art as Therapy, one of the best art books of 2013.

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