Achieving Luminescence - Mark Rothko’s Orange and Yellow
Aug 31, 2018
Mark Rothko may be the most misunderstood 20th Century artist. His work is almost exclusively discussed in terms of its formal qualities, like color and shape, yet Rothko insisted his paintings were not formalist objects, but esoteric signifiers of a moral universe, like poems. His painting “Orange and Yellow” (1956) is a perfect example of this misunderstanding. Any reasonable viewer would describe it in terms of its visual qualities. They would say it is a vertically oriented rectangular canvas painted with orange and yellow squares with a lighter orange border, and that the squares and the border do not have hard edges, but are soft and seem to dissolve into each other. But Rothko saw this painting, like many of his paintings, as a gateway—a doors through which viewers could pass into a world of perception where mythic dramas could be accessed by the emotions. “Orange and Yellow” embodies this viewpoint because it possesses a rare and specific quality that Rothko frequently attempted, but rarely achieved: luminescence. It seems to glow from within, as if generating its own light, as if some mysterious space exists within it and the light from that space is emanating into this dimension. That light is a siren call for viewers to move closer to the work, to become absorbed by it. There, face to face with the unknown, Rothko hoped that we could connect not with the irrelevant, formal, surface qualities of the work, but that we would open our minds up to a truly intimate, fully human experience with the unknown.
The Painter of Anarchy
Rothko frequently described himself as an anarchist, a declaration he repeated right up until the year he committed suicide at age 66. He did not mean to suggest that he embraced chaos or violence. He just meant that he distrusted authority. He believed that the only true authority was contained within the age-old moral questions that humans have been grappling with for all time. The seriousness with which he held this belief was emboldened by his upbringing. Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia in 1903. Escaping racism towards Jews, his family immigrated to the United States. His father and two older brothers came over in 1910, and Rothko and the rest of the family followed in 1913. As soon as Rothko arrived, his father died. He and his siblings forced to find jobs, the start of a life of hard work that for Rothko never ended.
The attitude he developed while toiling made Rothko fiercely self-reliant. He developed confidence and learned to trust his instincts and his intellect. He skipped two grades in school and was offered a scholarship to Yale, but ended up leaving that university in 1923 on the grounds that he found the institution elitist. After dropping out, he moved to New York City, where for the first time he enrolled in art classes. Having no formal art history training, he was not saddled with the belief in any kind of hierarchal system governing the art world. He simply saw painting as a means of addressing the human condition, which he felt was intimately related to philosophy and psychology. His earliest work in the 1930s figuratively explored the great myths of humanity. Then gradually, though the early 1940s, he became more symbolic in his representation. Finally, by the late 1940s, he arrived at his mature style, of which “Orange and Yellow” is an ideal example. He felt this style embodied his anarchic beliefs since within these paintings every viewer could break free from expectations about how to relate to art, and surrender instead to the timeless, transcendent, metaphysical realities of their own consciousness.
From Light to Darkness
“Orange and Yellow” is a particularly direct composition. Its limited palette and simplified visual language offers few distractions for the eyes, epitomizing the goal Rothko set for himself, which he described as “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.” Its luminescent qualities also mark a sort of turning point, as just two years later Rothko significantly transformed his palette in favor of mostly darker hues. His darker paintings are for more somber. Some viewers say they are menacing, while others find them to have sacred qualities—qualities that are epitomized in the Rothko Chapel, a permanent gallery space in Houston which John and Dominique Menil commissioned in 1964. Within that space hang 14 nearly black paintings. The space is illuminated only with natural light. Depending on the atmospheric conditions outside, the works exhibit transform before the eyes, from subtle variances of gray to blue to black.
“Orange and Yellow” also stands in dramatic contrast to the last series of paintings Rothko completed in his life, in the late 1960s. Sometimes referred to as the “Dark Paintings,” or “Black on Grays,” they were painted after Rothko suffered an aneurism that almost killed him, and after he separated from his second wife. While working on the series, Rothko was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Yale, a recognition equal parts ironic and validating, since it was recognition from a school he despised, and also notice that he had contributed to a system whose authority he did not trust. That recognition ultimately meant nothing to him, however. All he really wanted was to feel that the general public finally understood his works. But that is not at all what happened when he exhibited the “Dark Paintings.” They was described by critics in decorative terms, leaving Rothko feeling misunderstood once again. Shortly after their debut, Rothko took an overdose of pills and slashed his own wrists, manifesting one of his strongly held beliefs about art: that it is only “valid if it is tragic and timeless.” “Orange and Yellow” stands out, however, as an exception to that rule: a luminous, transcendental painting that continues even today to elevate our understanding of how abstract art can connect the human spirit to the unknown.
Featured image: Mark Rothko - Orange and Yellow, 1956. 231.1 x 180.3 cm. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, US. © Mark Rothko
By Phillip Barcio