How to look at Rothko


I am reading Mark Rothko’s biography because I didn’t know how to approach his art. It has become notably popular lately and it becomes strangely embarrassing to admit I don’t know what to do with his abstract color field paintings. Like most of us, I am convinced it is a challenge to make sense of abstract art without obvious context. Well, context is exactly what Rothko aimed to eliminate from his paintings. So how in the world can we make sense of his paintings? Try one of these ways of looking at Rothko and I’ll give you some unmissable knowledge on him as you go along.

Knowing the person Rothko

Traditionally we try to understand art better by learning about the artists’ lives and philosophies. It seems that this kind of context is not obvious in Rothko’s art, but his biographer Annie Cohen-Solal explains how Rothko’s troublesome background was imminent to his artistic development. In other words, he developed his artistic philosophy largely out of his experiences as a Jew fleeing from his homeland in Russia/Latvia and facing nonacceptance in his new country of the United States. This past made a serious intellectual of him and he developed his views as a way of identification and opposition to his opponents. It may be no surprise that his theories were quite deep and complicated.

So how can we look at Rothko knowing his background? First of all, by being aware of a deeper meaning behind the art. As with much abstract art some have the feeling it’s totally random, as if the artist did not think about it. You can safely assume that artists whose work you can find in museums took their art very seriously. Seemingly simple paintings, like Barnett Newman’s zip paintings (see under) were actually really carefully put together. They are made with a clear idea in the artist’s mind. Likewise, looking at Rothko’s paintings require effort from your side to explore that idea. Understanding this can take away some of your skepticism.

Facts and stories

Rothko’s philosophy surely was a challenge to me, though. Why? Because I am a historian of societies; I believe that nothing is relevant unless it has words and meanings ascribed to them; context. Who cares Napoleon lost battle in 1815, purely for this fact? It only means something when anyone has a feeling about it or if you see the connection of this fact with other ‘facts’. In other words, stories create the context. The thing is that Rothko aimed to eliminate any context from his paintings. Looking at his paintings can get me to feel kind of lost.

Feeling without thinking

But having no context in art there is something else left to do: to stop thinking and start feeling the artworks. Modernists like Newman, Pollock, Still and Rothko put much emphasis on the emotional effect of their paintings. Rothko says that the subjects of his paintings are universal emotions. Well, then we should all be able to feel them right? So do you feel it when looking at Rothko’s paintings? I mean, really? Did you shake off your opinions and did you shut down your thinking? But no worries if it doesn’t work; you’re not numb, but you’re not a yogi master either.

Sometimes I see analogies in the paintings with some of my own feelings. Then I see a feeling in one of the colors. If this color dominates the painting it means this feeling dominates my mind. A smaller color field in another hue then symbolizes a simultaneous thought in the back of my mind. But this is simply my explanation, I doubt this means I understood the painting. Is there even such a thing as a universal emotion? Is an emotion the same to you as to me? Is an emotion not different one day to another? Maybe you’re just not wired to ‘get’ paintings by Rothko every day.


Knowing all this, there are things you can do when you’re going to see abstract art. And honestly, I did not just create this strategy for you. I desperately need it myself, too!

So my advice when looking at Rothko is:

  1. If you can, read a little bit about him before you go see an exhibition, so you have a background (like this article 🙂 )
  2. Accept that Rothko’s art requires effort from you, it’s not only just going to entertain you (unless you are one of the few who instantly feel it)
  3. Shut down your opinions and critiques for a while, give the paintings a fair chance
  4. Choose a strategy to focus on when going to a museum/exhibition. You could challenge yourself to see without thinking or to try and see the connections between Rothko’s background and his art. Or look only at the colors/compositions without trying to analyze it (this is almost always on my strategy list!).
  5. Accept it if you don’t understand or feel Rothko’s art. It’s just not for every day. Maybe you picked up something else from it. Just practicing the above somehow moved something in your brain, so the time’s never lost!
  1. Here’s a sixth thing to do. It’s related to number one but more specific: read what his daughter, Kate, has to say. Most people assume that his final pieces show his decline into despair and depression, but from what I remember, according to Kate, his last series, done in browns and blacks, had to do with communicating his work in a purer form, that is, without the use of color.
    Sorry, I don’t have the reference, but this can be found with an easy internet search.

  2. Having read this years after you published it, I’m very late to this. Anyway, I believe you’re right to doubt the universality of emotions, at least with specific regard to Rothko’s paintings. He dearly wanted the wealthy, bourgeois patrons of New York’s Four Seasons restaurant to choke on their expensive meals while contemplating the soul-searing emotional charge of the paintings he’d been commissioned by Seagram and Sons to create for it. But that didn’t happen. On reconsidering the project he withdrew his pictures and returned the cash advance on his fee. Knowing this, we can choose to view the Four Seasons pictures either way, from Rothko’s point of view or from that of Seagram and their putative diners. Of course, that’s not what the artist explicitly intended, although implicitly he must initially have been relying on some degree of ambiguity to smuggle his disturbing emotion-bombs into the heart of New York society. In the end he just couldn’t reconcile the aesthetic, moral and political conundrums involved.

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