Mark Rothko From the Inside Out by Christopher Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionism artist who died in 1970.His son Christopher was six at the time, so with little to draw on in the way of personal experience of his father, he gave up his job as a psychologist to make a full-time, depth study of his father’s work.
I am not an art critic, but there is something about Rothko’s paintings that affects me at a very visceral level and the notion that someone close to such an influential artist should pour so much energy into such a venture fascinated me. I also had an inkling that, as a writer, the book would continue to help me explore concepts that I had encountered when interviewing a poet, his publisher, and an artist who had collaborated with the poetry press and its poets. Because in those three interviews it became evident that there were a great many conceptual similarities in the way a writer and an artist works. So I wondered what Christopher Rothko’s essays on his father’s work would offer me, not only as someone who understands little of Abstract Expressionism, but also someone who wants to reflect on their own creative process.
What emerged from Christopher Rothko’s, elegant and clear writing was remarkable and did indeed take me through an extensive journey of his father’s work. Because it also offered so many parallels to writing, it became not only appreciation of Mark Rothko’s art, but also an extended reflective exercise in the many ways in which the written word might be considered.
The book certainly provided tangible reasons why I can feel Mark Rothko’s paintings tinkering with my emotions as I look at them (as the written word is also capable of doing). Indeed as the explanation of this phenomenon says ‘something is resonating with their inner world. It is an essentially physical process, like a wind through a pipe or a vibration across a string that causes a note to sound’. The author also tells you how to approach the different works. Although rather than being prescriptive it is more a gentle nudge to get you in the right frame of mind before your approach a canvas. But Christopher Rothko’s skilful narrative of his father’s work also met my expectations for being able to reflect on my own craft of writing.
Narrative is one of the key elements to Mark Rothko’s painting, which might seem an odd statement, given that his best known work consists mainly of rectangles. This was not a casual use of the shape. As his son explains this was something you can see developing in his more conventional paintings. Mark Rothko’s experimentation led him to consider the rectangle a powerful medium with which to convey a story to his viewers. Experimentation is also a feature of a writer discovering their favoured form and developing it further.
It is notoriously difficult to reproduce paintings in print. I reviewed this book on an iPad and found it really brought out the luminosity of the paintings. The number of Rothko’s paintings on display in the book is very generous and are accompanied by equally generous and engaging explanations that approach the subject from a variety of viewpoints, such as conversations with the artist’s friends. The story about the choice of picture a close family friend made was particularly thought-provoking and poignant.
I suspect Christopher Rothko background as a psychologist creates another subtle dimension to the interpretation of what is going on, which gave the impression of reading something of substance that also aimed to reach out and draw in readers, much in the same way his father’s work did.
For a writer who wants to continue to develop their work this is a very good book to study, because there are many points of commonality between painting and writing and what it is trying to achieve, for example the effect of a different size in canvas, the lighting and setting of the piece (poem or novel, the way in which the choice of words can create different types of narratives). All of the discussions are fascinating and really made me think about the way words go down on paper.
As with reading, viewing art cannot be a passive activity, if the viewer is to get the most out of it, and of course everyone brings their own interpretation to the work. But it is this activity, regardless of what opinion or emotion a viewer comes away with that is so important. Mark Rothko was someone who wanted his pictures to be seen, because as his son points out ‘His paintings require an active viewer. As he famously pronounced “a picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token”’. The artist also appears to be the type of creator who took the view that if someone vehemently objected to his work he had at least managed to provoke a response because the viewer had engaged in some sort of dialogue with his painting.
I have made countless notes and will certainly be buying this book. It is something to keep going back to because I have a feeling the more I study it the more I will get out of it, particularly with regards to painting a page with words. I will also be spending more time considering not only Rothko’s paintings, but others I come across because this book has begun to open up a whole new world of art to me.
Mark Rothko. From the Inside Out was courtesy of Yale University Press via NetGalley