Seeing Red Again: On Mark Rothko

Content Warning: This article contains imagery of suicide.

Over winter break I took a long-awaited trip to the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). A few years ago, the SLAM built a new wing to house temporary exhibits, in addition to some contemporary and modern art. Standing in architecturally stark contrast to the rest of the museum’s neoclassical style, the new wing has a low-profile, open plan with lots of light and glass. This is where they house the only painting by Mark Rothko in the museum’s collection. Though I have seen it many times before, I always indulge myself in its dramatic reveal: I turn a corner and walk down a dim hallway towards a brightened gallery room where a stunning, six-by-seven-foot canvas of hazey, orange and red layered rectangles faces me. 

Each of the some twenty times that I’ve visited the SLAM’s “Red, Orange, Orange on Red,” I am reminded of a short conversation I had with my high school classics teacher during a field trip. After an hour-long lecture on three pieces of Greek pottery, she turned around and made a comment about the modern art on the wall across from us. She said, “I’ll never quite understand modern art like I do classical works. What was that one guy doing… the one who paints all the large rectangles on top of one another?” “Are you talking about Rothko?” I asked. “Yes!” And then she sighed and turned back to the pottery. Even as she noted her own lack of access to the painter, and perhaps his wider inaccessibility, my teacher was right: we will never completely understand the intention behind Rothko’s work.

Rothko wasn’t trying to get his audience to understand his work per se, and I think we can find comfort in this. Instead, he sought the raw emotions of his viewers, so even if you find yourself frustrated or annoyed when you come across one of his paintings, I think he might appreciate your honesty. Afterall, despite the many times Swarthmore has attempted to tell me otherwise, some things are just not meant to be understood.

Rothko was known to have described his work, and perhaps his life overall, as “really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” The frequently blurred but heavy borders of the color blocks found in his paintings do indeed fight against the claustrophobia of an otherwise constrained canvas. Moreover, the optical illusions evoked by his dramatic palette propose either that something is falling onto us or that we are falling into something. At the very least, Rothko’s work pulls at us less logically and more emotionally when we are finally forced to confront his unintelligible emptiness.

Rothko’s love of Mozart caught me by surprise. How could an artist like Rothko, whose work some critics call empty, have such an affinity for Mozart, a composer who has (if comically) been described as using “too many notes”? But this question is not a fair one; this discovery pushes back on any one-noted interpretation of the artist. In real life, if something appears to make perfect sense, there is probably more to the story than what we are able to discern.

One of several admirable elements of Rothko’s style — and one that I don’t think I’ve seen solidly done anywhere else — is that he shows us reds that make us feel calm instead of anger. Of the handful of Rothkos which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in the flesh, the majority of them have been red-focused, and while they are not always inviting or warm, their presentation suggests intense serenity as his brush strokes literally take the edge off of anything sharp in the room.

Rothko was found dead in his New York City studio on February 25, 1970. It’s interesting, given his long-standing commitment to studying red, that they discovered his sixty-six year old body resting in a large pool of his own blood. 

Photo by Olivia Smith; The 1962 Rothko painting depicted is titled “Red, Orange, Orange on Red.” 
Photo by Olivia Smith; Rothko book in the McCabe Color Room.

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