Seeing Red: Can we understand Rothko's work without decoding his favorite color?

Author:Bliwise, Robert J.
Position:PAINTING - Critical essay

A FEW SUMMERS AGO, I was painted as an art-world rebel. I was in Assisi, a perfectly picturesque hilltop town in the Umbrian countryside. While feasting equally on Giotto and gelato, I was taking a short course in art making. From a glorious setting would come glorious creations. That was the program's premise, and it wasn't to be trumped by my own questionable--as if there really were a question--artistic talent. I did find that nothing beat the existential pleasure of mixing paints to achieve the color and perhaps even the gooey texture of marinara sauce. I thought of it as Assisi Sunset Red.

My fellow aspiring artists were finding inspiration all over Assisi, which in aggregate resembles a tightly packed, earth-toned Cubist composition. But I was laboring on a different kind of composition: horizontal forms in light red and black on a deep maroon field, with layers on top of layers of paint, so that the whole thing would look irradiated. Assisi, I explained to the perplexed but patient instructor, seemed quite red. The town's medieval buildings glow in the red of every sunset. In the basilica, a Giotto fresco shows St. Francis, his arms extended heavenward, enveloped in a cloud of white and red.

Assisi is a place that cultivates its history. And I was paying homage to a figure who wanted to send history soaring along a new trajectory. That was Mark Rothko, who, in his own way, was another spiritual force.

Red and Rothko have long figured in a magazine-writing course I teach at Duke University. I hold up a print of a Rothko painting, Light Red Over Black (1957). The students, at first blush, don't see much in it--a bunch of forms in a bunch of colors. I try to present it as a metaphor for a written narrative. A Rothko is shaped like a good story. It's strictly structured (those horizontal bands), but there's also a playfulness and a turning away from the formulaic (those jagged edges). And there are multiple layers. Some of the shimmering shapes appear to rise above the canvas, others to recede into the depths. A narrative, too, should be multilayered; it's "about" a particular quest, for example, but at a deeper level, it's "about" the universal allure of the quest. A Rothko is also temporal. It's a rhythm of shapes bumping into other shapes. Actions through time. A narrative flow.


One quality that flows through a Rothko is tension. Rothko saw a tragic sensibility in his work; the storyteller sees it in the human condition. The tension hinges on the charged color relationships. In a Rothko, the colors seem to be competing with one another, tearing at one another, fighting one another. Particularly all those reds.

A year or so ago, while in New York, I took in John Logan's play Red. (It would go on to win six Tony awards, including the Best Play category for the season.) The play portrays the artist and his young apprentice, Ken, as Rothko was taking on a commission for the Seagram Building's Four Seasons restaurant. That was a commission from which he would famously withdraw. The intended clientele didn't square very well, he would realize, with his avowed socialist leanings. Early on in the play, Rothko gestures to one of his paintings and asks Ken, "What do you see?" Ken, after some hesitation, replies, "Red." From there ensues talk about, among many other themes, abstraction as a...

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