The Clouded Glass

John Haber
in New York City

Mark Rothko at the Whitney

I did not go to the Rothko Chapel to pray. Surrounded by black canvas in a hushed room, could I hope for a reflection of myself or of God? I could not safely turn from a painting to contemplate something else, not even something in me. Put away talk of pure plasticity and the sublime's cosmic drama. I had entered a place where I could live for a while with myself.

Mark Rothko created that special place, and I entered it again this summer. I do not mean the building I had once visited in Houston. I mean the place one enters again at his retrospective. Mark Rothko's Orange and Yellow (Albright-Knox Gallery, 1956)As I left this summer's show, I thought back with a shock on what the age of big-time museums takes for granted. I had forgotten how art can darken the world's mirrors to let in a stronger light.

Critics have compared that light to the harsh northern sun. They have recalled the grand aspirations of the nineteenth-century sublime. Perhaps, but Rothko offers something more down to earth. A Romantic mirror of the eternal seems far away. These paintings hold out a darker, far more palpable kind of mirror, the clouded glass of everyday perception.

Resting on a twisted ground

People do not ignore Rothko's retrospective. They do not talk through it or walk through it half bored. They do not press in each time one hopes to get near a painting—or to step back and see it. In these surroundings, the faint buzz of taped lectures would have scared me half to death.

People come, and they stay for a long time. For the first show in memory, people sit on the floor, back apart from the work, to give it space—in the room, in their heads. They include museum-goers so young they really should demand something more obviously postmodern. They have found fields of color so distinct and so intertwined that one lies in speaking of yellow upon blue, of red against red. They have found a place, for a little while at least, to live.

Mark Rothko took time to reach that desire for himself, almost to the eve of his suicide in 1970. Like his friend Adolph Gottlieb, he blossomed late, well after leaving Latvia and then Portland, Oregon. And he continued to develop into his mid-60s and to Rothko's black paintings, but his influences stayed with him all his life.

Rothko's first works, already well into his 20s, mark his first act of turning away. On the surface, and surfaces will always matter to Rothko, they have no ties to the past. Some paintings aim for the reality of New York's urban scene and the American century, from passing trains to passing faces. Others take up the febrile line of Surrealist drawing and Surrealism in America. In these paintings, a city's emotional energy sits at odds with its solid outer space. Surrealism's fluid inner world meets an insistence on human form.

After a few rooms of this show, I could finally see the great rectangles floating above me. Still, I thought back to the small rectangle at the bottom of an early painting, a subway platform in a dusky city, well before the melodramatic Subway of George Tooker. The ground plane still gives the painting its packed, shallow space, only it has come loose from perspective, twisting into a solid ground that only art can provide.

A ground is not a comfort either, just as the museum-goers sitting spread-eagled are not necessarily taking naps. Think of Robert Rauschenberg's vertical bed linens a decade later, only unbloodied by physical constraints. Along with echoes of Joan Miró in his saturated canvas, Rothko's urban intensity and unease was clouding his vision, creating a new art.

Waiting to inhale

One thing certainly changes as Rothko develops, color. In the show's opening room, only a self-portrait, looking ahead to the Bay Area school of the next generation, pulls off much depth. Drab attempts at Surrealism accomplish only so much. Rothko's brushwork takes time to encompass details of color and immensity of form. The inner and outer life of painting take years to collide in a single work.

Even Rothko's large abstract paintings have to find their way. In an early one he peels off the topmost oil layer to leave two thick, wavy lines. He wants to stretch one's line of sight past the limits of a rectangle, but the device seems forced. I liked the painting, but I still saw Surrealist doodling dancing on a subway platform. A foreground color has not yet taken its shape from the neighboring colors it absorbs and leaves behind.

Once it does, Rothko shares with Jackson Pollock a perilous rigor. No funny stuff here, in either sense of the word funny. His temperament could not accommodate Willem de Kooning's irony or mix of dark memories and forgiving serenity. It could not afford time to tell a story from right to left, like Robert Motherwell in his hints of a stony, inhuman procession. Harold Rosenberg promoted "action painting," but this painter knows when to lie still and breathe.

Above all, Rothko wants no tricks. Ad Reinhardt, with his sudden revelation of color in apparent black, seems trickery by comparison. Even drawing or texturing would suggest slight of hand, so it must not exist apart from color. As I looked at the long horizontal space between rectangles, I thought of how Jasper Johns would later pull a canvas apart to prop up steel balls. If abstract art sounds in hindsight pathetically macho, forever trying to prove it has balls, Rothko's masculinity catches in his throat.

With each year, colors get sharper, deeper, and subtler, and Rothko fusses less over each rectangle. The strokes blend as if to recreate themselves elsewhere, and they hardly worry about what looks deep or flat. The emotional tenor changes, too. At first color runs wild as it merges into larger and brighter fields. As it intensifies, however, it darkens, and a reverse process sets in. Now bright tones become irrelevant, because grey itself speaks so much of color.

I felt a tightening in my breathing well before his death. It is as if those museum-goers looked so relaxed because they could finally exhale, so intense because they found no air to breath in. Rothko's early, derivative styles—the pallid realism, formalism, and Surrealism—were all ways of waiting to inhale.

Clouding the labels

Like Rothko's art, his retrospective stays old-fashioned. Labels do not comment on each painting, and one has a hard time locating the labels that remain. Works sit comfortably side by side in large rooms. Would they ever fare as well at the Whitney Museum, their next stop?

The show pretty much forgets about the man's life and times. It brings one no closer to understanding his death by his own hand. The curator ascribes even the darkening solely to the demands of commissions. He points to Rothko's work with Philip Johnson, the architect, first on the planned murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, later for the chapel.

Like Rothko's inner world confronting painting's objectivity, I could not stop with what I saw. I tried to place all the change. I kept hoping to define the tension between this art's formal drives and its myriad of crossing influences. I kept wondering if the questions make sense, as if the labels, too, should appear larger but clouded over.

For this artist, I think, they still do. America and then New York City promised freedom. They left an immigrant with a cavalier command of inherited traditions, from realism to formalism and Surrealism. Yet they left a proud man hoping to stand apart from it all, to explain himself in no terms but his art's. It is as if one could be oneself only by standing outside history.

The step outside of history had itself a history. New York's intellectual energy came from just that historical step. It absorbed Europeans and European traditions, while their heritage lay in ruins. It drew on its past as a great industrial center while making the first hesitant steps toward a post-industrial city. Wall Street continued to trade slips of paper in place of things, while artists slowly took over factory spaces, and museums grew into cultural institutions.

Rothko's repeated subject matter helped art take that step outside of history. It developed the image in series, like metal tiles for Carl Andre or Marilyn for Andy Warhol, with reference outside itself cast to the emotional winds. The last works turned away again from familiar points of reference, by a progressive darkening.

Debating clarity

When one thinks of Rothko as a formalist or sublime, one has it only part right: his art never gives up mirroring reality. It just demands that one live beside a clouded glass.

For a generation now, the best critics I know have wanted things too clear. Abstraction's beauty had too many strings attached. Postmodern irony and cultural politics, in turn, often lack the critical distance to untie the strings. Besides, irony and politics reduce art to words, and yet surely something clear, something palpable, remains beyond words. Well, somewhere.

So the debate continues. Painting or its successors, something has to go.

The debaters spend too much time looking for the right words or for a way outside them, toward a supposed religious aura for art. The way outside language is to use it precisely, to revel in its contradictions. Art reflects—and reflects on—its culture most persuasively when it gets tangled up in the strings. At its best, the reflections and counter-reflections intensify, and it clouds the glass.

Artists still deal with that clouded glass, but in new ways. When Postmodernism quotes tradition and formalism, it makes the two pierce right through each other. Rothko's generation faced the terror of achieving both. His shallow space refuses depth or flatness.

No one else matched the depth of his refusal, not even others back in New York. Perhaps Rothko simply lasted with it so long, whereas Pollock burnt out well before Minimalism. Perhaps Rothko began with a grimness that already threw a cloud over the American dream.

Up close and apart

Pollock stretches freely across the wall, backing away from each edge because its power never runs up against limits. Rothko's rectangles pull only so far before they pile up too much tension.

Pollock's sky is America's immense west. Rothko remembers a far colder climate—his native Latvia or an American childhood in Oregon, a drab studio in New York's winters.

When Pollock or, less often, Janet Sobel leaves drips, one makes one's own space between them. Rothko's brush refuses to run free. It cannot abandon the texture of saturated oil. The canvas has to dominate a room, but only by growing to human scale. When one's eye enters his brightest yellow-orange, one finds one's way as if in the dark. Finally, one sits still and learns to live with it.

And that is Rothko's relevance to Postmodernism, even had his glow and layering not penetrated painters such as David Reed. I am asking that one see him, like the Minimalists after him, as pointing in two directions—back to urban America in all its glory and ahead to a culture without a center. Another favorite work of his generation, Vir Heroicus Sublimus, by Barnett Newman, posits "man the sublime hero." This retrospective looks well beyond the male hero. Its sublime is that mirror one can hold in one's hand and watch as it grows dark.

And yes, one has that room to get up close and to sit apart. I may worry about the show's next stop, the Whitney, but imagine trying that with modern art at the Guggenheim sometime, at least while keeping on a vertical. If the curator's reticence leaves far too many mysteries to unravel, others will have to tell the story. Maybe the show will help them start.


If Mark Rothko's retrospective returns sublimity to the everyday, perhaps only a fool (or a critic) could complain of its transposition to New York City. Certainly the Whitney's approach has more of the familiar. It begins with lines and crowds. Barriers keep one's nose out of the art, and decorum keeps one's seat off the floor. A huge room smack in the middle of the fourth floor gives Rothko a cathedral space. He might have left immediately for his private chapel.

The rooms stretch over two floors. They also stretch out one's experience of early work, and openings between rooms cause some curious distractions. Colors look more somber in the generally lower lighting. One forgets that these oils soak up every bit of light one offers them.

Yet if anything, the move to New York brings Rothko closer to home. Those early years seem more natural near the Whitney's permanent collection of prewar American realism. In fact, the word realism starts to sound more foolish than ever for titles like Underground Fantasy or Iphigenia. Rothko's unfinished murals have a kind of homecoming, too, barely a mile from their intended destination at the Four Seasons restaurant. They look less overblown in the process.

Above all, the lower lighting and open doorways make the New York show a great place to study color. Rothko's own studies on paper, a kind of postscript in the show's first stop at the National Gallery in Washington, receive a side room at the Whitney. I noticed for the first time the feathery touches, loose strokes, and poured paint late in his life. I noticed, too, the increasing reliance on mixed oil and acrylics then, and I could connect the new media and dark, casual surfaces to Minimalism. For better or worse, the Whitney makes Rothko a little less of a magician and a little more of a technician.

BACK to John's arts home page

Mark Rothko ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through November 27, 1998.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME