Mark Rothko and the Freedom to Starve (#2)

I am on the third floor of the museum of the Art Institute of Chicago; I am sitting in a room with two Rothko color fields—I almost wanted to write “of two Rothko color fields”—each hanging alone, diametrically, on interior walls, walls which permit guests to flow in and out of the adjacent rooms. I am sitting on the floor halfway between the two large canvases and over to one side. I am obstructing the flow of people but will be forgiven; in a museum, serious attentiveness is so hard and rare that the philistine is sufficiently impressed to forgive you anything in its name.

The two paintings are the Untitled (Purple, White, and Red) of 1953 and the yellow and orange Untitled of 1953-54. The curatorial placard for the former offers a cliché about Rothko’s mature paintings more generally, that it reflects his “metaphysical aims” of offering “a doorway into purely spiritual realms, making it as immaterial and evocative as music, and to directly communicate the most essential, raw forms of human emotion.” Perhaps, sure. However, as early as 1936, Rothko began writing a book, which he would never finish, about the affinities between children’s art and that of modern painting. Does this unfinished project not justify us in approaching these paintings naively, as children might, and as their frank simplicity seems to demand?

Mark Rothko.__ Untitled (Purple, White, and Red). 1953. Oil on canvas. 197.5 x 207.7 cm (77 3/4 x 81 3/4 in.)

I return to my seat on the floor. Why three distinct blocks of color in the canvas of 1953 and only two in the canvas of 1953-54? An almost stupid question, but why not? Even these two paintings by themselves suggest a hypothesis that is obviously confirmed from the perspective of Rothko’s writings and the development of his career over time, from his early experiments in figuration to the later color fields and even within the color fields, which (roughly, and with exceptions) move from bright multiplicities to darker and largely bichromatic fields approaching the monochrome. Clearly, he is interested in a certain process of purification, of reduction. In his writings, he affirms the movements of “generalization,” of “reduction.”


Mark Rothko. __Untitled (Painting), 1953-54.Oil on canvas. 265.1 x 298.1 cm (104 3/8 x 117 3/8 in.)

But it is reasonable to wonder, if all that remains are abstract fields of color, what exactly is being purified or reduced? There is no thing left, no apparent object or message the painter could be said to have successfully purified. However, there is indeed something left, because Rothko never painted purely monochromatic fields, of which one could arguably say that there is truly nothing there. The thing Rothko never abandoned, what I would argue is the main theme, object, and obsession of his color fields, is merely the exploration of the distinction between fields, distinction in and of itself. One of the bedrock presuppositions of any artistic product, any thing at all for that matter, is some minimum of distinction. That is, distinctions or boundaries are the essential and irreducibile unit of artistic production or creative activity more generally; boundaries, whether physical or conceptual, which say: this is this, this is a thing and not everything else around it. Anyone who is to call themselves a human being, a thinking and acting individual who supposedly possesses a will to do or make things, must maintain some minimum capacity for the construction of distinctions or boundaries or else be nothing more than a flesh-colored speck on the one great canvas of the blind, deaf, and dumb universe.

Barnett Newman. Shining Forth (To George). 1961. Oil on canvas. 114 x 174 in.(289.6 x 441.9 cm)

In this light, it could be said that the history of painting before distinction itself becomes foregrounded in works such as those of Rothko and Newman, the history of surfaces that portray just so many things, so many figures, so many stunning physical and mental vistas, so many alternate universes—it could be said that this history is fundamentally untruthful. Clearly, the great biblical antagonists of epic Christian canvases on some obvious level are not real and never existed. And of course it has been said at least since Plato that any and all artistic representation itself is a sort of fakery. But, on the other hand, we are accustomed to thinking that artistic license is essentially the right to tell lies in the name of some higher ideal.

Now, if we return to Rothko’s reading of the history of painting, we recall his sensitivity to the social and political conditions peculiar to modernity. Classical painters had the advantage of a religious, political, social, and economic order maintained by the force of centralized institutions that explicitly justified themselves by reference to overarching Truth. Even into the Renaissance period, the disproportionate share of power enjoyed by the rich and noble was justified because they truly believed in a Great Chain of Being that allocates to certain classes of people the right to dominate other classes of people. Artists, as we have already mentioned, could pretend to comply with the demands of powerful patrons but then take liberties at the margins to enjoy at least a modicum of creative freedom and at best perhaps a genuinely efficacious participation in the stewardship of history.

The peculiarity of modernity, however, is that our religious, political, social, and economic order is enforced by a progressive disavowal of overarching Truth. Today, we accept that some classes of people have a disproportionate share of power and dominate subordinate classes of people because we do not believe in the existence of any inherent Truth about who should get what or who should tell who what to do. If someone gets rich, it’s because they did what they needed to do to get rich, now they are rich, and what the hell does Truth have to do with it? If someone is poor, they are poor, and they have the right to get rich and they have the right to remain poor—the right to starve, as Rothko says.

In other words, premodern doctrines such as that of the Great Chain of Being are rigid ideological systems characterized by clear distinctions and bright lines distributing and demarcating inter alia status, occupation, behavior, and income for various classes of people. For modern capitalism to emerge, it would be necessary for an emergent bourgeoisie to contest this rigid ideology. In religion, the Reformation was a revolt against centralized, clerical claims to spiritual truth. In philosophy and politics, skepticism toward the claims of monarchs to divine right resulted in the successful bourgeois political revolutions of the late eighteenth century. In economics, Smith and Ricardo demonstrated the errors of a morally-inflected economic statism (consider the consistent if variable prohibitions of usury in premodernity) and paternalistic mercantilism in favor of liberating and devolving economic decision-making to the explicitly self-interested calculations of the bourgeoisie.

Today we seem to have all the freedom in the world, we can paint almost anything whenever we want. But this freedom has been gained only by the reduction of society to a grand marketplace. This means that one can paint anything one wants, but the attempt to paint seriously with the ambition of sharing an epic vision with the world and participating publically in an enduring tradition today means to sell paintings. And as Rothko points out, it is one thing for an artist to compete heroically in a battle of wits with a King or Pope who basically and reliably believes in one set of things, but to be subject to multiple, contradictory, fickle, and often mutually-exclusive masters is the definition of castration. For the artist seeking both creative sovereignty and historical transcendence (that is, participation in that aristocracy of spirit the representatives of which have always been the unacknowledged stewards of historical development) all ways seemed blocked under modern capitalism, where cash equivalency and profane circulation reduce the transcendent and the epic to merely subordinate, component parts of capital itself.

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Murphy, Justin. 2012. "Mark Rothko and the Freedom to Starve (#2)," (December 14, 2018).