Friday, October 2, 2015

The Art of Mark Rothko by Sarah Hong

Untitled, 1945, oil on canvas

Untitled, 1944, pen and brush and ink and pencil on paper

Take a second to look at these two artworks. They are both untitled and by the same artist. Can you guess the artist? Though the artist had employed two very different mediums for his works, it’s not too difficult to identify their thematic similarities. Both works showcase the mastery of fluid and translucent pictorial techniques that portray the very nature of organic processes instead of accurate depiction of the subject matter. Now take a look at the painting below. We all recognize that this work is by Mark Rothko, one of the most famous Abstract Expressionists in the history of contemporary art. Would you be surprised if I was to tell you that all three of these artworks are by Mark Rothko? But it is true. The first two artworks that are very different from his signature style is also by Mark Rothko. We could consider the first two pieces as evolutionary, embryonic previews of Rothko later work. Prior to his signature style in the 1950s, we see his surrealistic depictions that are elusive and mysterious with their evanescent shapes, colors, and tones that precede his large-scale, color-field paintings. What’s interesting is that although Rothko was moving towards complete abstraction, he resisted being defined as an abstract artist. Perhaps, by observing the Rothko’s evolution of style, we could grasp the reason why and understand that his focus is not creating a complete abstraction but to convey a variety of depictions in a simple, universal language. 
Violet and Yellow on Rose, 1954, oil on canvas 
By the winter of 1949-50, Rothko had arrived at his signature style, one of which two or three luminous color rectangles arranged one above another appeared to float within a radiant color field. These paintings are notable for its ungainly size as well as the use of horizontal bands of color set against a warm-colored background. Another remarkable aspect of Rothko's techniques is his use of light. To achieve the effect of light emanating from the very core of his painting, Rothko stained pigments into his canvas by applying numerous thin layers of color one over the other. This layering coats of paint allowed him to re-create, in a contemporary manner, the resonant light of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, a Dutch painter from the Dutch Golden Age of the late 1600s, whom he very much admired. 

What makes Mark Rothko’s works my favorite paintings of all time is that beyond their large scale and bold presence, there’s something very intimate and emotionally compelling about each one of his paintings. And this aspect, in fact, was one of Rothko’s major goals, which is to create the contemporary spiritual equivalent of the great Renaissance paintings. Although a viewer may think all of Rothko’s paintings appear the same, I disagree. Each one of these paintings is done to convey a specific emotional value and an intimate, sensitive experience. Another common reaction I see when people take a look at any of Mark Rothko's paintings is "Hey, I can do that!" I wanted to include the first two artworks by Rothko to demonstrate that Rothko's signature style is not due to his lack of sophisticated techniques, but instead, he is making a conscious stylistic choice to convey a powerful meaning. His mastery of effectively employing the power of simplicity is what makes him a true genius in the world of contemporary art.

Rothko, M. (1991). The Art of Mark Rothko: Into an unknown world. New York: C.N. Potter.

Rothko, M., & Waldman, D. (1994). Mark Rothko in New York. New York: Guggenheim Museum.

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