Art History 150D
July 26, 2012
A Life Within Colors
Mark Rothko, No. 12 (Black on Dark Sienna on Purple), 1960
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
“My father guarded it and, consciously or unconsciously, stoked the fires of interest in all those who heard murmurs of its existence. His words might be outside his artwork, but they communicate philosophies he still held dear even after paint became his sole vehicle for expression.” --Christopher Rothko In this mature work of Mark Rothko’s color-field painting, the ambient soft-edged colors, black on top and dark sienna below, appear weightless at the first glance as if floating above the purple background. Yet, as the viewers’ gaze casts into the vast darkness of the two rectangles, the purplish borders emerge as if to sink the shapes rather than float them. The suggested mobility of positive and negative spaces implies an extraordinary sense of introspective depth. Though Rothko was classified as one of the leading figures of Abstract Expressionists, his paintings seemed to transcend Greenbergian flatness and appeal to more human senses than merely opticality. The broad areas of color in No.12, as well as those of his other major practices, are his vehicles to evoke the primal instincts of humans. The use of somber palette beginning around late 1950s, which deviated remarkably from his early practices of bright and buoyant color chords, reflected the artist’s shift toward a more desolate stage of life. Here, the painting appears just like an ongoing piece of music, which embodies the artist playing in sorrow or even in deeper contemplation of human tragedy. Its enveloping scale invites the viewers to step forward and confront the emptiness of passive modern life.
Art That Breathes
Rothko's overall technique is atmospheric and evocative, yet his painting reveals a rich tonal range and subtle color variation on close inspection. Through the outer skin of the massive blackness that dominates the upper half of the canvas, some warm under-painting of red and brown occasionally shows. Thus, despite the darkness of the painting, the mood is not deadly. Indeed, the combination of sienna, purple, and black creates a faultless and precise color chord that makes one think of an ongoing piece of classical music. All of a sudden, one’s mood conjugates with the harmonious color, as if one could hear Rothko’s beloved Mozart playing in a distant room. The sonorous quality of the colors enlivens the whole painting, calling upon the spirit of an artist, a painter or a musician who is not there. Moreover, such kinds of darker paintings, like those of his brighter ones, open up people’s senses besides visual, and summon a sumptuous mood. Far from the negative connotations of blackness, the painting reveals one of the seven ingredients that constituted Rothko’s works: “sensuality…a lustful relation to things that exist.” The harmonious quality of the color chord also suggests a unity between the two large rectangular forms and the purplish background. The distinction between forms and colors, the boundary between background and shapes, and the contrast between lines and spaces all seem to have vanished. Colors define the shapes they solely occupy, yet the edges of the shapes dissolve into the background color so that their limits become no longer definable. This effect resembles the infinite and indefinable nature of the universe that continues beyond its edges—we cannot tell where the universe begins or where it ends. It also alludes to the microscopic world of living cells and tissues. The fuzzy edges make it seem as though these areas are expanding outward, as if they were living organisms under cell-division processes. Eliminated from the hard edges or formal constraints, these forms are given the freedom to flounder around, to cut themselves adrift, and...
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