Mark Rothko and the Freedom to Starve (#6)

Myth is a founding lie or fantasy that is necessary to structure the present in the absence of true knowledge of actual origins. Just as the present’s coherence requires an unreal structuration from the past, so too does it need an unreal structuration from the future. There are many options whereby societies collectively negotiate a conception of the future that serves to structure, stabilize, and give meaning to the present. The well-known Enlightment theme of perpetual progress is only one example. When progress fails or perhaps “pauses,” a common alternative is nostalgia, the structuration of the future by a mythic past. This latter attitude is particularly pathological insofar as the openness and potentiality of the human future is limited and constrained by a circular investment of the future into the past, the boundlessness of future possibility absurdly choosing an already dead past. Rothko loathed nostalgia, he told us this very clearly.

Given the interpretation outlined here, one is struck by the very last piece in the Catalogue.

Untitled, 1970 60 ¼ x 57 1/8 (152.4 x 145.1).

Right after the “Black on Grays,” after all the bright lines, a bright red canvas with two blurry lines establishing two unequal blocks. It is 1970. It is the Cold War. It is Communism versus Capitalism. It is the United States. It is a Russian Jew in the United States. It is a good leftist Russian Jew in the United States during the Cold War. It is the color of blood, the color of the Communist spectre haunting not just Europe but the world, and to some, for better or worse, it is the color of a different future. Coincidences, of course.

However, what is the terminological placeholder for that which is to the future what myth is to the past? Historically, the dream of revolution is to the future exactly what myth is to the past. It is the radical difference between what is exists in the present and what is to come, a radical difference that functions structurally in the same was as the mythic past, giving meaning and impetus to human striving. Of course, the point is not that any artist should have thrown his or her weight behind the authoritarian Soviet Union of the 1970s, but it must be recognized that one responsibility of the truly autonomous person, the artist, is to defend at all costs the openness of the present, for the nature of the space onto which the present opens is the space of creation itself. Revolution being the signifier for the absolute openness of the future, a potentially radical difference that cannot strictly be known or proven, it is simply the name for the only non-nostalgic modern or postmodern myth available for the structuration of present times, times which have been so aggresively hallowed of all spiritual, ethical, and social significance. Thus, after the rigorously and insistently subtractive color fields, after the increasingly ruthless, dark, black-gray, black-blue, sparse canvases with harsh lines, a blast of red with two murky lines susceptible of dissolving at any moment, two precarious threads holding apart two unequal blocks of the same color. Modern painting gives us the rigorously reduced essentials of form, but in his very end, in his last breath, Mark Rothko leaves us with the reminder that the ground zero of indistinction to which a certain current of modern painting aspires finds its dialectical culmination in a certain revolutionary upshot, in an acknowledgement that arriving at ground zero is only the negative activity toward a bright future of radical recreation, of equality, of dissolved egos, the negative activity of revolution itself, a block or bloc of color for which we should not be afraid to draw our lines.

The critical development of reduction, of peeling away the inessential, demands at the end a turn, a leap into the future. At the end, the truth demands that one avow some unreality to structure the present if the present itself is not to become deceptive. The error would be to reduce reality to nothing, which it surely is, and to just stop there: one flat block of black, suicide, where Rothko’s canvases were for a long time heading, and where Rothko himself ended up, but not before a last gasping breath at the myth of a future. Reality is certainly nothing in the final analysis, but one never gets to the final analysis, for the recognition of the nothing is itself the dialectical spring into the future, into action. “Art is not only a form of action, it is a form of social action,” writes Rothko, “For art is a type of communication, and when it enters the environment it produces its effects just as any other form of action does.” If this is true, modern painting for us should serve as a sort of visual springboard into the radical activity space onto which art opens when properly understood. The requirement of drawing a line and the right to starve by it. That these are the only two remaining vestiges of artistic autonomy is what modern painting demonstrates most radically if we are only able to understand it correctly. That final red painting in the Rothko catalogue is a painterly paraphrase of Marx’s well-known dictum that the workers have “nothing to lose but their chains.” The artist has nothing to lose but his or her current castration, and everything to gain within lines purely of his or her own drawing, the lines of any properly revolutionary wager.

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Murphy, Justin. 2012. "Mark Rothko and the Freedom to Starve (#6)," (December 14, 2018).