On Rothko: Is It Easy?

Rothko’s work is the subject of much derision in popular culture, all variations on the theme that making art like his is easy. In visiting a collection of his works recently, I had this critique in mind as I viewed the culmination of the artist’s effort over his decades of proliferation.

We visited “Mark Rothko: A Retrospective” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston twice while it was on display (the exhibition ended in January).

The exhibition started with earlier works that in no way resemble the color field (multiform) paintings for which Rothko is famous. On the first visit, I labored in the rooms of the early works, dutifully reading the placards next to each one, hoping to get useful background on the artist. On our second trip, I skipped right to the heart of the color fields, fixating on how light the paint was while still being so saturated, agreeing with Sara that Rothko must have feared losing some of the colors (a blue taken over by a purple, for instance) as a work progressed

But aren’t his paintings a cynical joke at the expense of people too serious and high-minded to see it? This is where that critique “That’s art?!” comes in to play. If Rothko ever needed an apologetic, he delivered it dutifully with fellow artist Adolph Gottlieb, responding:

We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.
— “Manifesto” - June 13, 1943 edition of the New York Times, brief manifesto: Rothko, Gottlieb

So what makes him special beyond the paintings that made him famous? It’s what makes any artist or tradesman or professional special. It is the gift of time applied relentlessly, passionately to a skill, aiming to do something new, something better, or something different. Rothko took the time over the course of his career to explore painting in those ways, expecting that he’d get better, that he’d find a new manifestation in his technique, and that he’d find a different way entirely of using art to express something. To “destroy illusion and reveal [T]ruth”.

And I am grateful for how Rothko changed art, how he shifted the field away from old European classical ideals and pointed the globe to shining America in the post-World War era, new philosophy along with it. Looking at the AMoCA artists who use the Gift of Time in Roswell, I cherish that Rothko blew the paradigm wide open for all manner of ideas, media, and technique.
Looking at his paintings with bare eyes and taking stock of his words, you begin to let yourself feel the unequivocal—colors, saturated and light, deeply hued, enormous, yet thin and frail. The enormity of that simple expression.

What is it?

Well, you’ll have to see that for yourself.