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WOID Bulletin: Rothko

Mark Rothko
(September 27 - November 29)
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison at 75th Street
570-3676. http://www.echonyc.com~whitney
Wed/Fri/Sat/Sun, 11:00-6:00; Thu: 1:00-8:00 (free 6:00-8:00).

The new Rothko retrospective at the Whitney Museum is touted as a
corrective to the previous one, some twenty years ago at the Guggenheim.
Instead of the huge, nameless, hovering veils of color from back then,
this is a rational show, tracing Rothko's development with clinical
accuracy. It's a nice angle, even for those among us whose lives were
changed by the first show.
But what is left? Oddly, there is an old article by Harold Rosenberg that
anticipates this question ("Mark Rothko," reprinted in The De-definition
of Art," 1972): once the Transcendental Sublime is withdrawn as the
ultimate meaning of a painting, the viewer is thrown back to formalism or
psychology for guidance; but Rothko, as Rosenberg points out, hated the
idea of "self-expression." Not to self-express was to express everything
else - the Sublime as a Kantian/Cartesian "not-I." Though the Whitney show
relies on the formalist approach I don't think psychology can be entirely
avoided here. And Rosenberg's article is still useful: it's full of odd,
contradictory, and deeply revealing statements, never as revealing as when
we contrast them with the works actually on view at the Whitney.
At the outset, Rosenberg points out that Rothko and peers sought the
Sublime "not through acts of intuition but by calculating what was
irreducible in painting." And yet, five lines further he speaks of them as
"one-idea painters." Either you've resolved it all into the ultimate
Hegelian Idea, or you haven't. Rothko hadn't, of course, and his attention
to what could not be reduced is fascinating. This is obvious in the first
room at the Whitney, in which Rothko, still groping for "a" style,
isolates painterly representations in tight geometric grids. Thus a
loosely painted view of a subway platform is encased in a rectangular
structure of girders, only a few letters from station signs float on top
of the mix, undigested. Later on the grid turns into a series of
horizontal registers, first encasing bits and pieces of classical jetsam
(arms, swords, bearded gods), then bits and pieces of biomorphic
symbolism. If, as Rosenberg asserts, "Rothko sought to arrive at an
ultimate sign," then Rothko sure took his time getting there.
Moving to the works of Rothko's maturity, one is struck by the discrepancy
between Rosenberg's claims and Rothko's reality:for Rosenberg, Rothko's
paintings are "icons;" they are like "segments of metal or stone tablets
that once carried inscriptions;" they are "ancient testaments." What they
are - insistently so - is exactly NOT writing, though there is painting,
halfway through the show, in on which a wisp of abstract brushwork floats
like a signature, not to be seen again.
There is a Kabbalistic legend that Rothko, of all people, must have known.
The Torah itself is unchanging. However, there were two Torahs handed
down: the Black Torah and the White Torah. The black Torah is made of all
the black letters of the Torah, the white Torah is made up of all the
space between them. The meaning of the Black Torah is fixed forever, but
the White Torah changes all the time, so that the area surrounding it -
the black letters - is read differently through the ages. However, Rothko
is far more concerned with reconciling figure and background, with erasing
the tendency to "read" images, than with the images themselves - the
"letters." And his great, conscious breakthrough occurs when he turns away
from any binary opposition in order to deal with colors in several sets of
contrasts. This begins as a somewhat academic exercise in overlaps and
contiguities, for instance a patch of red and a patch of green (contrast
of complimentaries! ) set over a patch of purple (red - purple: contrast
of saturation! green-purple: contrast of complementaries!). Eventually
these contrasts become far more intuitive, far more lyrical. The small
works on paper in particular are a joy: far more than the larger canvases,
they "send" the eye upwards or bring it down according to the placement of
color, but the process is really closer to the process of designing a page
than to the painting of a canvas. The last room is a marvelous curator's
joke: for anyone imagining that black BY ITSELF means something to Rothko
there is a great surprise in store. So if we are to speak of psychology,
we will have to avoid the usual banal list of fake Freudian
generalizations (e.g. that a painting of a behind is "anal."). But we may
speak of "cathexis," the transferring of unspoken desires onto a neutral,
safe object which is then manipulated. There is indeed something
deliberately repressed in Rothko's paintings. Whatever that something
represents, it can be described, for our purposes, as "writing."

Paul Werner, New York City

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