Can Mark Rothko’s №16 (Red, Brown, and Black) (1958) Be Appreciated Without Being Predisposed to It?

Acclaimed Russian-American art professor and scholar H.W. Janson wrote “not every beholder responds to the works of this withdrawn, introspective artist. For those who do, the experience is akin to a trance-like rapture” [1]. However, Rothko’s №16 (Red, Brown, and Black) (1958) challenges this claim by successfully inciting an affective response through use of common symbols that are able to transmit certain feelings. This ideology suggests that Rothko’s №16effectively uses color and texture to depict variations of the same shape in order to inflict powerful impressions, like a sense of unbalance and tension. This idea is something that any member of the audience can appreciate without having any predisposition or previous knowledge of Rothko’s paintings.

According to Glenn Phillips, the Curator and Head of Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute, Janson’s claim suggests that there is “a right and a wrong way to see a Rothko or that there are right and wrong viewers — that is, some people are predisposed to the ‘Rothko Experience,’ and others are not”[2].The “Rothko Experience” is a term used to describe the process of “authentically ‘seeing’ the Rothko”[3] to prove that the effects caused by these paintings is backed up by actual elements of the works and how they relate to the eye.

The elements in Rothko’s №16 relate colors, forms, and sizes to the creation of affect, thus allowing the audience to experience the “Rothko Experience” without any previous knowledge about the artwork. In the case of going through the “Rothko Experience” with one of Rothko’s mature artworks, like №16, the method “always [involves] a prolonged process which [alternates] between looking inside the rectangles, looking back and forth between or among them…, and taking in the whole painting as a unified image”[4]. These elements, as well as the overall composition of the painting, allude to the artist’s usage of “contradictory elements”[5] in order to make “the eyes switch visual registers as if perpetually considering the terms of an either/or proposition”[6]. This causes the viewer to constantly examine the painting, until she notices that “the painting seems to change, even pulsate”[7]. In the case of №16, this can be pointed out with several elements. For instance, English professor and writer of one Rothko’s biographies, James E.B. Breslin, points out how the “orange-red, which keeps fading back into the plum ground, seems thin and ephemeral”[8] and how the plum field gets lighter towards the center. As the color sinks into the sizeable canvas (8 feet and 11 inches wide by 9 feet and 9 inches tall) and spreads out towards the corners, it brings forward the brown, red, and black rectangles while exemplifying the tension in term of space. This is caused by the lack of balance between the different varieties of hues.

Using elements of painting, Rothko communicates with the audience without a need to explain intention. Through balance, placement, and color Rothko informs the viewers of №16 that “the visual apprehension of a Rothko painting is a temporal experience”[9]. Without an exchange of words, it is subconsciously understood that “seeing a Rothko painting is a process that unfolds dynamically over time”[10] and the viewer succumb to the “Rothko Experience” without even being asked to.

This idea of experiencing feelings or emotions in the presence of a Rothko is something that has been documented by many, as well as Mark Rothko himself. Rothko revealed that he did not want viewers to feel serene, but that instead he wanted them to see the violence that occurs in our lives. He wrote that he “imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their [his paintings’] surface”[11]. This attitude is also backed up by Miguel López-Remiro, Subdirectories for the Guggenheim Bilbao and Founder of the Museo Universidad de Navarra, who asserts that Rothko saw his painting as an epiphany for the viewer — as an experience that reveals emotions. Elaine de Kooning described observing emotions in those who saw Rothko’s work: “his canvases have a curious way of transforming the people standing before them. Their skin, hair, eyes, clothes, size, gesture assume a dreamlike clarity and glow. It is as though the painting emptied the space before it, creating a vacuum in which everything three-dimensional takes on an absolute or ideal existence”[12]. An experiment on analyzing the “Rothko Experience” was performed by students of the Museo Universidad de Navarra, Spain, which concluded that “Rothko’s painting style contains special characteristics that favor activities of contemplation that involve the ‘meditative gaze,’ given that through his ‘colour fields,’ he creates undefined, atemporal, and infinite atmospheres that can cause, in a personalized manner, vivid emotional experiences”[13]. This experiment used students who were not predisposed to seeing Rothko through a sorrowful scope, and yet, were able to understand a Rothko the way the artist intended. It proved that Rothko’s work creates an effect on its audience that can be felt with or without any previous knowledge of the artist or the artist’s intent.

Mark Rothko, №16 (Red, Brown and Black), oil on canvas, 1958, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The testimonies mentioned transcend regular sensory response and appeal more towards an affective response from the viewers. “Following Spinoza, we might define affect as the effect another body, for example an art object, has upon my own body and my body’s duration”[14]. Essentially, affect can be interpreted as “the matter in us responding and resonating with the matter around us”[15]. It is due to this that any member of the audience can have the “Rothko Experience” without having any knowledge regarding Rothko’s practice, style, or ideas behind his use of color. In terms of №16, the notion of affect is made present through the changes in the color hues and visible brushstrokes — as well as their relationship to the other colors — and how these elements opportunely project Rothko’s desired sense of chaotic and distressed energy.

This idea of affect being connected to the immersiveness of Rothko’s paintings is not an arbitrary concept. In fact, Rothko himself intended for the viewer to obtain certain sentiments and understandings after undergoing the “Rothko Experience”. “The success of a Rothko painting hinges not just on the details of pigment present on canvas but somehow extends to the nature of the viewing encounter itself, as if the work is only successfully completed when it generates a particular, perhaps profound, affect in a properly receptive viewer”[16]. The large measurements of №16 inflict on the viewer a sense that the colors and textures expand beyond the length of the canvas and are all around, thus offering a deeply-engaging sensorial experience. This use of size immerses the viewer in a sensation of unbalance and tension. This affective response comes from the institutional scale of the painting and how it “opens us up to the non-human universe that we are part of”[17]. In this painting, Rothko’s preference of a large canvas can be “understood as the realm of affects” as it aids in “[actualizing] these invisible universes; or at least it [opening] up a portal onto these other, virtual worlds”[18]. This means that Rothko’s №16 combines all these elements to incite a desired affective response on the viewer. This reaction is created through Rothko’s balancing of elements without any predisposition of the viewer interfering.

[1] Jason, H.W., and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art for Young People. 4th ed. harry N. Abrams; 1992.

[2] Phillips, Glenn. “Introduction: Irreconcilable Rothko.” In Seeing Rothko, p. 1–9. 1st ed. Los Angeles, California: Getty Research Institute, 2005.

[3] Phillips. Seeing Rothko. 3.

[4] Breslin, James E.B. Mark Rothko: A Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

[5] Phillips. Seeing Rothko, p.3

[6] Phillips. Seeing Rothko. p.3

[7] Phillips. Seeing Rothko. p.3

[8] Breslin, James E.B. Mark Rothko: A Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

[9] Phillips. Seeing Rothko. p.2–3

[10] Phillips. Seeing Rothko. p.2–3

[11] Crow, Thomas. “The Marginal Difference in Rothko’s Abstraction.” In Seeing Rothko, p. 25–39. 1st ed. Los Angeles, California: Getty Research Institute, 2005.

[12] De Kooning, Elaine. “Kline and Rothko.” ARTnews Annual, 1958. Quoted in John Elderfield, “Transformations.” In Seeing Rothko, 101–122. 1st ed. Los Angeles, California: Getty Research Institute, 2005.

[13] Echarri, Fernando, and Carmen Urpi. “Mindfulness in Art Contemplation. The Story of a Rothko Experience.” Journal of Museum Education 43, no. 1 2018): 35–46. Doi: 10.1080/10598650.2017.1384977

[14] O’Sullivan. “The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation”.Angelaki 6, no, 3 December 2001). p. 126.

[15]O’Sullivan. “The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation”.Angelaki 6, no, 3 December 2001). p. 128.

[16] Phillips. Seeing Rothko.p. 1

[17] O’Sullivan. “The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation”.Angelaki 6, no, 3 December 2001). p. 129.

[18] O’Sullivan. “The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation”.Angelaki 6, no, 3 December 2001). p. 129.

College graduate based in Panama City. I write about contemporary art and its intersection with culture, technology, and digital trends.

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