By JOSEPH NECHVATAL November 28, 2023
The large format at one blow destroyed the century long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting, to make it intimate. We replaced the nude girl and the French door with a modern Stonehenge, with a sense of the sublime and the tragic.
-Robert Motherwell, Artforum, September 1965
When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the fifties, someone told me how I could get onto the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn't be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done (....) its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there that had not had any expression in art. The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that's the end of art. Most painting looks pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.
-Tony Smith, Artforum, December 1966
In the Mark Rothko (1903-1970) Retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, 115 Rothko paintings are spread over four floors within ten rooms. Displayed chronologically across all of the Fondation’s spaces, the exhibition traces the span of Rothko’s career: from his rather poor earliest figurative paintings on the lowest level to the moody bifurcated abstract works he is most known for as part of the Abstract Expressionist generation.
I chose to begin at the end of the show with Rothko’s 1969-1970 Black and Grey series that is displayed in the tallest room of the Frank Gehry building. These somber paintings are hung alongside some of Alberto Giacometti’s large, thin sculptural figures and this pairing was exciting, creating a wordless dialogue between figuration and abstraction close to what Rothko had in mind for a UNESCO commission that was never realized. The dark repetition in this work appears indebted to that of Ad Reinhardt, another reductive element of the Abstract Expressionist movement and a brusque artist/theorist. Specifically, Reinhardt’s contemplative, black-on-black paintings made between 1953 and his death in 1967—a total of twenty-five of them. Reinhardt wanted to create “the last paintings anyone can paint,” he said, and described his project in 1961 as “a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting” which Reinhardt exhibited as a continuous and consistent installation by placing these uniform paintings around a room so as to envelope the viewer in a concerted, repetitive, dark sublimity.
Much like Reinhardt, Rothko wished to engulf the viewer in non-objective tragic emotion (if such a thing exists) and hence desired that his paintings be seen from fairly close up, as to fill the field of view. This was best achieved in the 1964 commission he received from John and Dominique de Menil to paint a set of murals for an octagonal chapel in Houston, Texas. Rothko completed this mural-cycle in 1967 and the installation of the murals took place in 1971, a year after his suicide on February 25, 1970. On the same floor as the Giacometti-Rothko pairing is the maquette for this Rothko Chapel.
From that top floor I worked my way down: backwards through time. I confess to have been rather nervous, as I had seen the 1978 Rothko Retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the looking down from the top floor over the span of the entire installation (as one does there) reduced his tragic meditative works, in my mind, to something as banal as an automobile showroom: the similar rectilinear forms appeared in lines of various color themes and shades. Happily, Rothko’s abstract “cloud” works could not be seen in any such sweeping arrangement at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, but rather in a series of relatively modest galleries. The architecture this time also allowed closer and more comfortable immersive exposures to the painting’s brushy surfaces, and as such, a way to enhance and concentrate vision where I see nothing except the art—which when gazed into can appear to become almost anything.
By blocking the monotony of seeing too many of Rothko’s abstract works together, a great service was done to the important shift towards the more minimal side of abstract expressionism that Rothko took, alongside Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Tony Smith.
The above statement by Tony Smith had an extensive impact on redefining art and form in immersive terms. However, following the turnpike experience, Smith did not cease making art. On the contrary he began making an expanded form of art in reaction to what he saw as the confining and restricted space of the traditional sculptural and painterly object. Clearly the immersive desire is there when an artist says, as Smith did, that he wishes to create a sense of vastness: a totally enveloping surrounding.
Such an art expands painting scale so as to expand consciousness of an immersive aesthetic experience by widening the field of view where I can be implicitly included in the frame of the painting. It is for this reason that Rothko beckoned the viewer of his paintings to step close and immerse themselves in the Josef Albers-esque color relationships which, paradoxically, render the material surface of the painting more palpably.
Like Rothko, Barnett Newman’s principal contribution to the elaboration of an immersive color aesthetic was his use too of an expansive (while reductive) idiom which employed colossal chromatic fields of color. Newman, while developing the use of color into magnificent color-fields explained in his theoretical writings of the 1940s (republished in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews) that the world historic crises of the Second World War rendered traditional subject matter and styles invalid, necessitating the search for a new (awesome) content appropriate to the modernistic spatial configuration which the war had made apparent. In a series of theoretical tracts and catalogue essays, Newman reiterated this aesthetic quest throughout the 1940s, adapting a polemical pose which focused on the obligation of the artist to break with the passé conventions of the picturesque-based easel painting. Rather, he revivified the resplendent immersive concept of the sublime.
This sublime offered Newman and Rothko a metaphor and metaphysics in which expansive color-fields might entangle the primary genuineness of life, which in Newman’s and Rothko’s judgement comprised of an acute sense of tragedy. Newman’s views in this respect were published in his tract The Plasmic Image—an unpublished essay written between 1943 and 1945. In The Plasmic Image Newman drew heavily from the thesis of the aesthetician and theoretician of Expressionism, Wilhelm Worringer, who proposed in his book Abstraktion und Einfühlung (Abstraction and Empathy) that antagonistic circumstances in the Mediterranean—not the suppositional benign and accordant world—is what produced Greek Classicism. And that this discord was what nurtured idealized visual forms.
According to Newman, similar forces determined the expressive outlook of prehistoric artists whom he felt created forms which conveyed an awesome feeling like one feels before the terror of the unknowable. In his essay The Ideographic Picture, which he wrote for an exhibition catalogue for the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1947, Newman generally sketched-out an identification of art’s transcendental core in association with “pure” ideas of an idealistic flavor. The rationalization behind Rothko’s and Newman’s painterly thought therefore may be called apocalyptic—as it dramatized the horrendous conditions of the war with its urban bombing and nuclear destruction. This view is made most evident in Newman’s essay The Sublime is Now, which was published in Tiger’s Eye in 1948.
With his 1948 breakthrough painting Onement I, Newman transformed the relationship between figure and ground into a continuum. Thomas Hess in his book Barnett Newman links Onement I’s field-treatment of space with various mystical concepts pertaining to space, light, placement, division and measure as found in Jewish Cabalistic lore—as its composition was a single upright thin band of color which seemed to emerge out of a luminous spatial-field which suggestively immersed the viewer into a unified field.
Primary to our concerns with immersion into color here is Rothko’s ensuing exploration of huge color-fields and its implicit capacity to engulf the beholder, such as in No. 14 (1960). Common to this was the interest with how art may cloak the individual and therefore enhance a sense of self-conscious sublime. This is what differentiates Rothko’s modern version of the sublime from the prototypes of the romantic version which involved the beholders entanglement in an impersonal natural spectacle before which the bystander was expected to semi-recoil in overwhelmed fascination/astonishment. The question of scale with Rothko is not however merely a question of the size of the canvas measured objectively. It is rather a measure of the experience which the beholder feels before the expanse of the canvas.
However, from 1949 onward Newman did increase the objective scale of his paintings until he attained the enormous grandeur found in the format of his 1951 masterpiece Vir Heroicus Sublimis, which measures 2.42 by 5.41 meters (7.11 by 17.9 feet), now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The ingrained operation between maximum and minimum forces reaches a zenith in the panoramic proportions of Vir Heroicus Sublimis. With the title Vir Heroicus Sublimis Newman made clear his particular interest in a direct intuition of universality.
Newman would say that a viewer standing in front of his painting “must feel a vertical dome-like vault encompass him (...) an awareness of being alive in the sensation of complete space.” To advance this, Newman had a label placed on the wall of his 1951 exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City (a show which was installed by Tony Smith) which read, “There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.” Thus the sign directed visitors to stand close to the paintings so they would flood and fill the viewer’s field of view with trembling saturated color so that the viewer would have the same intimate contact with the painting that the painter did painting it (thus optically and psychologically entering the picture).
Taking the hint, Rothko also turned to painting vast paintings in the late-1950s. Famously, in 1958 the architect Philip Johnson commissioned Rothko to paint a monumental mural for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City’s new Seagrams Building. As a result Rothko made three sets of murals over the next two years. The first group was either dispersed or destroyed and Rothko also abandoned his second set of canvases which were to make up the mural series. However, Rothko completed the third set, but instead of delivering them to the commissioned site, he returned the money and a decade later gave them to the Tate Gallery in London where they were installed precisely to his specifications (i.e., low to the ground where one has the physical sense of being able to imaginatively enter the paintings physically). The Tate has loaned to the show nine Seagram Mural paintings—the entire Rothko Room—a highlight of the exhibition.
Speaking about the relationship of size of a painting to the human scale, Rothko stated at a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art (which was later published in the journal Interiors) that “I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass... (...). However (when) you paint the large picture, you are in it.”
So Rothko’s later large paintings, nicely spaced out at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, are not pictures of an experience, but rather experiences unto themselves of ontological proportions. But is that enough? At times it did not seem to be—content-free problems arising from the tension created from the opposition between surface materiality and color opticality just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. Rothko’s liberation of color from form in the service of filling a room has been long surpassed in the neon-tube installations of Dan Flavin, who expanded color’s presence dramatically.
Yet Rothko’s greatest painting from this “high” period, to my mind, is No. 10 (1957). In No. 10 the picture is no longer an illusionistic container for three-dimensionally rendered objects. Rather it is through the flatness and symmetrical composition and reductive format which creates the direct perceptual experience of unity which Rothko was after.
A satisfying element in this regard at this point in the show is the heights at which these paintings are hung. Rothko always wanted (rightfully) his work hung low—and this principle is adhered to. I could imaginatively walk inside them. The richness of this close full-body perception, however, was hindered by a troubling aspect of the majority of the exhibition. Rothko apparently also insisted on low lighting situations for his paintings—and the place is consistently very dimly lit (at least in the early evening when I was there).
Here I felt that curators Suzanne Pagé and Christopher Rothko overly respected—or interpreted—the artist’s demand, as the dim light in almost every gallery does the perception of his color arrangements no favors. The colors seem rather dull in the dim light—and the subdued lighting also gave a church-like ambience to the show that is pretentious and definitely unneeded. The spirituality of the work, in fact, is to be found in the soft floating color clouds that hover ever so delicately before my eyes. And I want to see the color well. Sustained looking at some of them—many benches for seating made this possible—offered divination opportunities so that subtle forms emerge from the brushwork, giving the painting a phantasmagorical element.
As I recede back into time by descending the physical space, gradually the spatial organization of Rothko’s paintings un-simplify and un-reduce from his now classic rectangular shapes that touch and kiss according to binary or ternary rhythms and color combinations. Works from the 1930s and 1940s, which were quite small, are logically placed in the lower gallery, with its lower ceilings. Here a Miro-inspired surrealism is displayed, which Rothko uses to express the tragic dimension of the human condition during the War. Preceding that are his urban landscapes. Here visions of the New York subway—ugh—dominate from the 1930s along with a hipster Self Portrait from 1936. On view October 18, 2023 through April 2, 2024. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.view all articles from this author