Art for the Artist

Fascinated by colour as I am, naturally one of the artists I find very inspiring is Mark Rothko (1903-1970). His work makes use of large rectangular areas of colour, highlighted by or offset with complimentary or contrasting hues.

In his mature work, Rothko generally painted two to three fuzzy-edged blocks of colour, of varying size and set free of the canvas edge. He used a wide range of hues and added complexity to the pieces by breaking the rectangles with a contrasting bar of colour (as a sort buffer), or by creating and varying lightness or darkness, opaqueness or translucence, warmth or coolness, and yet retaining a sense of harmony.

Untitled 1951

Untitled 1951

Apparently Rothko claimed he was ‘no colourist’ and that to see him as such was missing the point of his art. Maybe so, but art is such a personal thing. In a way, it’s a form of communication: the artist may have his own message but he needs to remember that not every observer will see things from the same perspective, level or experience; therefore, the observer may take away something completely different from the piece than the artist intended. No bad thing, if you ask me. If I appreciate Rothko, as many do, for his colour, then it is surely good that I derive pleasure (and a range of other feelings) from his work, despite what his original intention may have been. I’m a simple soul – art for me is about feeling and atmosphere. The meaning and symbolism behind a piece is less relevant for me and I derive little pleasure from analysing a painting – that just removes all feeling from it. Call it escapism if you like.

Untitled 1953

Untitled 1953

In addition to the use of colour in itself, what really fascinates me is the interaction of colours with each other. By placing one hue next to another it can really change the feeling and dynamic of a piece. Red next to orange will tell us a very different story than red next to blue. The interplay between the colours (complimentary, broken and contrasting) and their position and size on the canvas all have a major impact on what the piece is saying to you. Rothko really masters this in his mature work.

Untitled 1949

Untitled 1949

Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee are also favourites of mine, but they don’t hold a torch to Rothko’s purity and depth when it comes to the use of colour. ‘Pure’ in this sense doesn’t mean ‘simple’ though, as often Rothko layered colour upon colour, using glazes and applying and wiping off paint, creating complex hues that are difficult to describe. None the less, the effect of this is, for me, is a purity of feeling.

Red on Maroon 1959

Red on Maroon 1959

If you ever have the chance to visit the Tate Modern gallery in London, Rothko’s Seagram murals are a must. Located off the main exhibition hall in their own room (the ‘Rothko Room’), they invite you to get lost in the vastness of the deep colour. Some are evocative of the after-image you get when you close you eyes, after having looked out of the window on a bright day. They are stunning. I could have spent hours staring at them, losing myself in them. Unfortunately, visiting hours are way too short and all too soon you have to emerge from the temple, blinking in the daylight, back to reality.

Rothko Room - Tate Modern Gallery London

Rothko Room - Tate Modern Gallery London

Dieuwke Swain
Fine Artist & Photographer

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1 Comment »

  1. Rothko is often misunderstood and brushed aside too easily. I think the average viewer will never understand the complexity of his work. he died too early!

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