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Mark Rothko From the Inside Out by Christopher Rothko

January 9, 2016

Mark Rothko from the Inside out

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

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From → Non-fiction

24 Comments
  1. I love the seriousness of this. Not everyone can engage with an artistic language that seeks to convey a response outside common objectivity. Creativity, all of it, is an invitation, and we engage only if we submit ourselves to the creator’s concepts. Unless of course, the creator, artist, launches their work outwards like a coded message in a bottle, unattached and waiting for a foreign shore to alight upon where finders can or cannot let out the genie as they see fit. I love the genie released here. This is why I stand before paintings sometimes and wait for resonance. Hoping anyway. I recently walked around the Lowry and Arthur Berry exhibition at Hanley and wrote poetry lines there and then as an instant and (immediate) response. Whatever I noticed or whatever resonated, went straight down as it happened. My next blog post will feature these for sure. I love this extract of the post “Painting a page with words.” My…how that resonated with me.

    • What a great piece of writing to complement the book and the post.
      I can’t write poetry but have discovered a whole new world of enjoyment from the form, particularly when considering the relational aspects between art and the written word.
      The book has really made me think about my prose writing.

  2. Lovely, yes, there is a definite relationship that forms between words and most things, especially art and music. I’ve done a couple of video poems to this end. I believe this synergy of words and conjoined ‘aspects’ can be fostered and grown on many levels.I suppose ekphrasis is one obvious relationship, but I once put slow motion video of a boxing match to a Bangles song. I felt it produced an entirely different synergy when combined as opposed to each as isolated elements.

    • It never ceases to amaze me how many ways different forms of creativity can be combined and the limitless number of permutations this derives.
      Once firmly entrenched in science I dismissed the value of art (used in the broadest sense).
      How my views have changed!

      • Art can sit comfortably with science I think. You might fancy that art is close to a form of spirituality too, because of the abstract qualities of it. If I put my hand on a hot surface I can explain the outcome scientifically. If I am moved by art the feeling may be no less real. Emotion is physical too in lots of respects. The effects of art can often be dismissed as abstract and largely intangible but that is far from reality I believe. It is simply that art cannot be reduced to a simple scientific calculation. It is though, part of the human condition for living, as we so often see.

    • How is Rothko’s art and music synthesized?

  3. Christopher Rothko claims that his father’s paintings “sing” and are, in some instances, like Mozart arias. I would be interested in acquiring artists’ opinions about this interactive musical/artistic universe for my own blog on the subject.” Orange over Purple” is mentioned by the author as an “Aria” yet I cannot from my human eye appreciate that perspective. He expands upon the Mozart/Rothko partnering in the following: http://theartnewspaper.com/features/my-father-and-music-how-mark-rothko-s-love-of-mozart-made-his-paintings-sing/ shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com

    • As a writer I can see the parallels and Christopher Rothko makes a persuasive argument for linking music to art.
      It would certainly be interesting to hear an artist’s view on this.

      • What is the persuasive argument? As a musician and writer, I didn’t find Christopher’s Mozartean alliance to his father’s paintings convincing. The music of Debussy perhaps has a relationship to the Impressionist art movement but how does Orange over Purple “sing” as a Mozart aria?

      • As someone who is not an artist or lacking an intimate knowledge of Mozart, to me it is the composition that is the key. The way the colours and shapes work with on another either creating harmony or dissonance. A piece of music or a work of art can both elicit a visceral response.
        Orange over Purple seems to be a vibrant work and I think Christopher Rothko associates Mozart with this type of vibrancy and the colours engaging in a dialogue that, along with the way the rectangles are placed on the canvas, becomes more than a sum of its parts.
        To my amateur ear Debussy does not strike a listener with the same vigour as Mozart and would require more mellow colours.
        But this is the interesting phenomenon with art that each observer brings their own experience to the table and can view a piece in a different way.

      • Music of the Classical era, epitomized by Mozart and Haydn had no PROGRAM attached as did the works of the Romantic era composers. As to Debussy, who rejected the Impressionist label, though musicologists enjoy linking his music to impressionist painters, Monet, Renoir, at least again it has the composer’s suggested programmatic titles affixed. Same for Schumann’s (Romantic period) Kinderszenen with an abundance of character pieces.. I just though it far-far fetched for Christopher Rothko to make Mozart the springboard for his father’s paintings, because the viewer’s imagination should run in any direction desired. That is true of any art form, with its embedded subjective nature. Why tell viewer that a painting “sings” when for many it doesn’t. C. Rothko presented a lecture on Mozart and what he thinks the composer represents.. for instance saying tears and joy, all in one. And then lots of platitudes, and generalizations about the composer’s music, finally explaining his father’s work in Mozartean terms. It just had a unfamiliar “ring” about it.

      • Might I use your texts in my upcoming blog about Art and Music, particularly as it applies to the Christopher Rothko writing about his father…I will naturally apply a link to your blog site. Thanks, Shirley K

      • I think if that’s me you’re asking Shirley, no problem. I’ve really had great fun looking at all the discussion.

      • Yes, thanks for such permission. I’ve already begun writing it. Will be a new experience for my readers.. mostly adult piano students who are looking for kinship and tips on learning piano.

  4. I don’t know precisely what he meant, but metaphor is a powerful tool for presenting things in a new light. It may not be a precise interpretation, perhaps a simile, but I do know from colour theory that some colours sing visually when placed against certain others. Sing meaning a different intensity and vibrancy ( or it just appears to the eye that way). There are more ways of articulating this without devices but I feel they may not be as emotional in communicating a point and I think emotion is an important ingredient in this.

    • Did you compose the soundtrack to your poem, “Under the Stars?” Nice blend of media.

      • Thank you Shirley, yes I composed it and played it as such, and I really thank you for your words. I am not a musician therefore I work by ear and feeling alone, aspiring to create unity.

    • Might I use your reply in my upcoming blog about Art/music synthesis, particularly as it applies to what C. Rothco asserts about his father’s alliance to Mozart. I have a digital artist friend who has added to the mix, no pun intended. My blogs though Piano related, often include interviews with musicians who compose scores for silent screen movies; commentary on museum exhibits.. as one with a stringless piano at the SF Jewish Museum that when tapped creates ink blots; movie critiques of films with music themes as Seymour: An Introduction (Ethan Hawke’s docu about my good friend and pianist), and naturally, now art and music, something new on the horizon for me and my readers.

  5. Elaine sorry for hijacking your post and thread, but it does show how good creative writing (yours) can act as a stimulous for discussion in all sorts of ways. Regards. Neil.

    • I do not feel the least bit hijacked 🙂
      Really enjoyed reading the exchanges.

      • Thanks for that. It just occurred to me that I was talking across the post so I am delighted to read your comment. I too have really enjoyed reading your post and the exchanges. Better the gentleman I reckon.. Cheers Elaine.

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