In mid-20th-century American art, Mark Rothko’s work is the best-known example of abstract expressionism. Famous for his featureless clouds of colour, his rejection of form and his belief that abstract images can – in his friend Adolph Gottlieb’s words – “simply express complex thoughts”, Rothko is often assumed to be an individualist who broke with tradition. But his work also owes a great deal to Christianity and to the Catholic artists of the Renaissance.
A Latvian Jewish émigré, Rothko attended Yale on a scholarship before moving to New York to become an artist. His early influences were European surrealists and expressionists, whose achievement he wanted to translate into an American context. As if that wasn’t ambitious enough, Rothko would attempt to address the spiritual decline of his contemporaries.
Rothko was a voracious consumer of classical literature and music, and spent much time meditating on abstract philosophical themes. Mozart, Nietzsche and Shakespeare regularly stirred his creative forces, but it was the Christian existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard that most shaped Rothko’s understanding of the painter’s role.
Above all, Rothko was influenced by Kierkegaard’s famous description of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac. As Dore Ashton wrote in her biography of Rothko, “Abraham is called upon to commit ‘a unique act which society cannot condone’. Abraham is caught between the universal law and the law that governs the individual.” For Rothko, the artist was also “compelled to commit a unique act”, forced to take the risk of doing something important and new. Reading between the lines, it seems as though, like so many readers of Abraham’s story, Rothko also pined for his own redemption.
Before producing his celebrated monochrome canvases covered by simple yet subtle colour schemes, Rothko spent several years painting experimental, surrealist works under the influence of European artists such as Joan Miró. In these figurative pieces, Rothko adumbrated scenes from Greek tragedy, Egyptian myth and biblical history by surrendering to pure abstraction. The vivid suggestions of violence and suffering in his output at this time were redolent of the Second World War raging across the Atlantic. As humanity was divided by violence, Rothko turned to the old order of religious visual references which, in a previous era, had so successfully answered the human appetite for metaphysical truth.
Although they are classed as abstract works, Rothko’s paintings at this time were not a rejection of the material world, but a new treatment of ancient imagery. And though it can seem hard to place these works in the artistic tradition, Rothko’s titles show that he was dredging up the sunken images of Western culture: Gethsemane (1944), The Rites of Lilith (1945) and The Last Supper (1942) make clear his biblical inspiration.
After this time, Rothko ceased to name his paintings and instead designated them with numbers and colours. But his connection to the Christian tradition continued. This was especially evident in his fascination with the Italian Renaissance, which he described as an era “when mutual understanding between the artist and the world seemed to be impeccable”.
After being commissioned to paint the famous Seagram Murals, Rothko went to Rome and Florence and visited many churches and galleries, helping to channel his creative energies. He was impressed by the design of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library – and perhaps even more by Fra Angelico’s paintings in the Church of San Marco. Rothko admired Fra Angelico’s giant frescoes with their delicate application of light and colour, which prompt the viewer to stop and contemplate. This is the atmosphere Rothko hoped to reproduce, and at his best he succeeded. Until then, Rothko’s work had aimed at self-expression; but Angelico’s work encouraged him to aspire to something more meditative.
Rothko was bowled over, not just by the beauty of Renaissance art, but by its technical and theoretical sophistication: the perfect geometric composition of the staircase in the Laurentian Library exemplified the Renaissance obsession with symmetry and balance. To Rothko, a splendid object such as Michelangelo’s staircase forms in the viewer an inner sense of harmony and consistency – but this harmony produces claustrophobia as well as comfort. Rothko’s work continued to explore that paradox.
Like the great artists of the Renaissance, Rothko’s work culminated in the furnishing of a religious space – though of a rather different kind, an ecumenical chapel in Texas. He produced three tenebrous triptychs and five single paintings for it, which have been described as windows looking into the darkest hour of the night.
In 1970, not long before the chapel’s completion, the maestro of American modern art was dead.
Like all art, the strength of Rothko’s work relies on an emotional engagement with the viewer. When I went to the Sistine Chapel with a friend who had no interest in art, he said: “Those paintings on the ceiling weren’t so great. They looked like pretty cartoons.” You could easily pass through a room of Rothko’s pieces and see a series of pretentious colourful rectangles, but Rothko was doing something else. As Michelangelo said: a man paints with his brain, not with his hands.
Rothko wanted to reduce the perceptible world to its most basic foundations. Under the mesmeric depth of his thick yet diaphanous colours, the viewer can sense the flow of existence which courses through us all.
He wanted to move viewers to a kind of inner illumination, and when I sit in front of the Seagram Murals in the Tate Modern, my sight entirely taken up by the huge yawning squares, my mind easily turns to thoughts of mortality and immortality, of beguiling complexity and soothing simplicity, of both music and silence.