Abstract Expressionism: Should We Be Gung-Ho about Rothko?

Divisive: 'Untitled, Black On Grey', Mark Rothko (1970). Images sourced from https://goo.gl/1z38xW

By: Taliha Gazi

In the eyes of cynics, Abstract Expressionism is an art movement which can have difficulty justifying its label as prima facie ‘art’. Hand a five year-old a paintbrush, and there is a good chance that they will produce some form of artistic expression on the paper they are given, transposing their ideas from abstract thoughts to visually comprehensible images. However, this is not to say that your five year-old niece is a precocious reincarnation of Paul Cézanne, or a budding Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Unless they happen to be Autumn de Forest who, at the age of fourteen, sold her paintings for around $7 million.)

If we consider Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Grey), an export of the Abstract Expressionist movement, the bisection of an entire canvas into a black rectangle and a grey rectangle does not appear, at first glance, to express, nor impress, for that matter. This painting is divisive, not only in its composition (by divorcing the colour black from the colour grey), but also in the way it isolates observers from reality by its non-representational nature. The sceptics will scoff that Abstract Expressionism lacks integrity, imagination and, more scathingly, skill. After all, a novice with no artistic or creative prowess (indeed, a child) could churn out dozens of pieces of paper all incised in half by one black and one grey rectangle. 

How, then, can Abstract Expressionism defend itself against the scorn of its sceptics? Firstly, we shall need to examine the composition of Untitled (Black on Grey) further to reach a fairer assessment of its intentions and aesthetic. Then, we shall need to decide upon criteria which can help us define what constitutes as art. This criteria will by no means be unfalsifiable, but will posit my interpretation of how to distinguish between art in the trivial sense, such as a doodle, and art which is widely recognised as ‘valuable’.

Abstract Expressionism: Is it all just smoke and mirrors? (Mark Rothko at the California School of Fine Art, San Francisco, 1949). Image sourced from https://goo.gl/0zBL1a

Abstract Expressionism: Is it all just smoke and mirrors? (Mark Rothko at the California School of Fine Art, San Francisco, 1949). Image sourced from https://goo.gl/0zBL1a

I will start by outlining my understanding of what art is. In my view, art must possess at least one or more of the following characteristics: (i) skill, (ii) the intention by its artist to possess ‘value’, and (iii) the ability to reference ideas, emotions, concepts and objects common to the human experience. If we analyse Untitled (Black on Grey) using this definition as a lens, we shall see that it manifests all three characteristics. In relation to (i), the painting exhibits a build-up of different shades of black before descending into lighter grey hues; arguably, the subtle application of paint could not be achieved by an inexperienced child or, in fact, anyone without any artistic skill. 

In relation to (ii), Rothko intended his artwork to exist as ‘valuable’: by ‘valuable’, I mean designed with the purpose to communicate something meaningful to the artist themselves, an audience of spectators or both. Rothko himself describes Untitled (Black on Grey) as a reflection of the ‘historical sublime’. He began to reject titling his artwork in 1947, and argued that the large fields of colour he painted encouraged the observer to reflect upon the self and their own size in comparison to the monumental scale of his canvases. Here, Rothko intends to produce the effect of engulfing the observer, immersing them in a unique visual experience while emphasising our insignificance compared to the grander ideas of time, space and being. 

The value of Rothko’s artwork is linked to the ultimatum he sets us: when observing one of his paintings, observers have no choice but to consider their own ideas about what Rothko is trying to depict. Otherwise, they will feel alienated from its experience, and will eventually reject his work as meaningless. Meaning, for Rothko, is purely self-reflexive, but that is not to say that his artwork is wholly reliant on the interpretations of each spectator. Nor is it to say that if all spectators disappeared, the meaning of the painting would do the same. Rothko’s paintings, like all other art, are attempting to express something, but only Rothko himself can know what that something is. Meaning, therefore, exists in a constant state of flux between one spectator and the next, and it is the open-ended ambiguity of Rothko’s work which aids this fluidity of meaning. 

'Onement, I', Barnett Newman (1948): Art, or just a figment of our imagination? Image sourced from https://goo.gl/WEgx43

'Onement, I', Barnett Newman (1948): Art, or just a figment of our imagination? Image sourced from https://goo.gl/WEgx43

To return to the idea of art and ‘value’, the ambiguity within Rothko’s artwork is deliberate: it is his intention to express an idea on paper, and to have that idea taken apart and shuffled around by others. More significantly, Rothko has intended that this happens. However, if someone was to paint a yellow line through a brown background on a piece of paper (which is what Barnett Newman’s Onement, I painting looks like) to pass the time one afternoon, this would not constitute as art unless the artist later became attuned to the potential meaning of what they had created. To create such a painting (or even a doodle) idly without intention or retrospective acknowledgement of what it could stand for, is trivial, futile and without value. 

In relation to (iii), Untitled (Black on Grey) could be interpreted as a signifier of death. Death is a concept universally understood in one way or another by humankind. In this painting, death is bleak and desolate, but also transcendental and evocative of space, with the grey half resembling what looks like the moon. In the words of Leo Tolstoy, ‘The business of art lies just in this - to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.’ Ultimately, for art to have an intellectual and emotional impact on our understanding of the world, it must illuminate an idea, emotion, concept, or even object with greater clarity than could ever be imagined in our own minds. Art is an interpreter, translating the language of the non-physical into that of the visible. What, therefore, could be clearer than death as a barren black and grey wasteland with no hope of reconcilement with the light? 

ST.ART Magazine